“Here was Romney raw and unplugged — sort of unscripted,” writes David Corn of Mother Jones about the newly released video of Mitt Romney at a Boca Raton fundraising event in May. “With this crowd of fellow millionaires, he apparently felt free to utter what he really believes and would never dare say out in the open.”
It’s not that simple. As citizens become more interested in what our prospective presidents really believe, politicians become more guarded about sharing their beliefs. If everyone wants to look behind the mask, the incentives lead hyper-ambitious but hyper-cautious politicians to wear layers of masks. Corn’s idea that a presidential candidate at a fundraising event is baring his soul is either tendentious, since it helps Corn condemn Romney as a callous plutocrat, or naïve. A more plausible interpretation is that the video finds Romney giving one more speech to one more audience, calibrating, as all politicians must: the message he wants to deliver; the message that particular audience desires and is capable of hearing; and the result he’s hoping for, which is usually votes, but sometimes the investment of money, effort, or enthusiasm.
The contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney now features symmetrical embarrassing, surreptitious tapes from fundraisers. Barack Obama’s remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser in April 2008 about the “bitter” people in the small towns of Pennsylvania and the Midwest who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” is one bookend. Romney’s discourse on the “47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it” is the other.
It’s worth noting that Obama and Romney were both attempting to describe Americans making less than half the median income to an audience of people making much more. Both politicians ran into trouble because they didn’t really know very much about the people they were trying to explain, having much more in common with the ones they were speaking to. The most offensive aspect of Obama’s assessment was its crude anthropological reductionism, the assumption that he understood the people of the small towns better than they understood themselves. The most offensive aspect of Romney’s is its crude application of the theory that economic incentives not only influence but determine political behavior, including voting.
Both arguments reiterate the importance of each party’s policy agenda, while attempting to account for the political obstacles to enacting it. According to Obama, the Democrats’ problem with working-class voters was that they were averse to the idea that government could help them. “People have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it.” According to Romney, the Republicans’ problem is that these voters are already getting too much help from the government, and have no interest in hearing about how that help could be reduced or restructured.
Obama won the 2008 election despite the fact that his remarks about bitter clingers were made public. But he had seven months between that controversy and Election Day, while Romney has just seven weeks to move the political debate onto more favorable ground. However the election turns out, the abiding challenge for conservatives is to persuade Americans that the cure for the ailments of liberalism is not more liberalism. It is not, in other words, bigger government but a better government in a better society.
In 1998, the New York Times called Idaho, because of its meager social-welfare spending, “the worst place in the nation to be poor.” Liberals and conservatives have different understandings of the import of such a judgment. Liberals seek the kind of non-judgmental attitudes and robust welfare state that would transform censorious, stingy Idaho into Amsterdam, where laissez faire social norms and beaucoup faire government programs combine to render state-subsidized poverty a viable lifestyle option. Conservatives, by contrast, think the best place to be poor is the one with the most opportunities to become formerly poor. Such opportunities require the freedom necessary for economic vigor, but also strong and even stern families, communities, and social norms that equip people to search for and find opportunities, and then make the most of them.
— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center, and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.