The Agenda

Special Obligations

I am “into ideas,” and so naturally I’m inclined to want political candidates to have full and frank conversations about ideas that I care about, e.g., economic dynamism, free trade, financial innovation, creative destruction, and competitive markets. 

But I think it is important to understand that our elections unfold the way they do for a reason. Recall that the news media acts as a selective agent, per Rafe Sagarin. Mitt Romney recently gave a speech at the NAACP in which he discussed his support for lifting charter caps in detail. Yet a brief reference to his commitment to repealing Obamacare became the near-exclusive focus of news coverage of the speech. What does this tell you if you are a candidate? Back in 2008, Barack Obama tried to explain to a group of affluent Democrats based in San Francisco why rural voters in Pennsylvania don’t share their social views and sensibilities. You might recall that he used the words “bitter” and “cling.” Regardless of what you make of Obama’s assessment, consider the impact Mayhill Fowler’s decision to publish his off-the-record comments has had: we are materially less likely to hear Barack Obama’s frank observations on any number of issues.

So this is what we need to understand as we debate what Mitt Romney — or for that matter what Barack Obama — should say about deeper economic questions. How will the news media react? How faithfully will it reflect the spirit of what the candidate says? Will outlets with the largest reach faithfully convey the essential point? The rise of digital media has greatly reduced the power of gatekeepers as it has given us a clearer picture of what readers find most stimulating and engaging. This clearer understanding of what the reading public wants drives conflict-driven coverage to no small extent.

The reading and voting public varies considerably in sophistication. Moreover, the existence of multiple media channels allows for a kind of market segmentation, in which different components of the electorate can be addressed in different ways. Some years ago, a dear friend of mine co-authored a paper on “strategic extremism,” one manifestation of this phenomenon: as the share of voters who are regular church-goers declines, religious affiliation can become a more efficient channel for political messaging. Now, of course, we can target audiences in a far more fine-grained manner. While Barack Obama attacks private equity and outsourcing, he raises money from wealthy individuals who have profited from them. He can do this because he can convey to them that his attacks shouldn’t concern them all that much. 

A number of conservatives and left-liberals have been calling on the Romney campaign to defend private equity and outsourcing and offshoring. After all, the argument goes, it is simply not plausible that Mitt Romney really opposes these things, so why not explain why he supports them? Suffice it to say, these people have many different reasons for wanting to have this conversation. 

My basic view is this: I don’t even believe that Barack Obama opposes “outsourcing.” Though I think that the president does not have an extremely sophisticated understanding of the underlying issues (a subject we’ve addressed in this space), there is strong evidence that he understands the case for international trade. Yet it would be politically senseless for him to eschew attacking Romney on these grounds, as high-stakes political campaigns are about using any weapon at hand. 

Given that Mitt Romney aims to defeat Barack Obama, the notion that he has a special obligation to explain and defend views that he (I strongly suspect) actually shares with the incumbent president implicitly structures the playing field to the latter’s advantage. The obvious rejoinder is that Romney’s identity and past experience creates this special obligation while the president’s identity and past experience (as a community organizer, legal academic, and legislator) does not. This could very well be true. It is possible that Romney’s efforts to deflect these charges by noting (correctly) that he was not in charge of Bain Capital when it made its investments in firms that offshored production, etc., will not prove convincing and will somehow backfire. 

Or it could be that a Romney effort to make an affirmative case for free trade and specialization — because that’s what we are actually talking about — will be badly distorted and misrepresented, and that it will prove a powerful distraction from the dismal state of the labor market, a conversation that is necessarily tilted against the incumbent president. 

Let me stress that I don’t think this is an intrinsically good thing. I would love to see Mitt Romney make the case for trade. But unlike President Obama and his allies, I don’t have a particularly strong preference as to whether he makes the case now or after he is elected president. If making the case now makes it more likely that the U.S. will have better policies on trade in the future, I am for it. If it makes that outcome less likely, I am against it. 

To some extent, it reflects the larger economic climate. If the economy were flourishing, Mitt Romney might be able to make a case for free trade and specialization, as President Bill Clinton did during the run-up to NAFTA and during the 1996 presidential campaign. But that is not where we are right now. Americans are in a fearful, anxious mood. The notion that President Obama should have a free pass to prey on these fears and anxieties yet Mitt Romney has a special obligation to make an affirmative case for a series of mostly beneficial economic changes that have nevertheless put a number of highly visible less-skilled workers under economic pressure strikes me as somewhat weird. (Indeed, President Obama’s credibility with key audiences — witness how public opinion on same-sex marriage shifted after he embraced the cause — suggests that he has at least as much of an obligation, if not the same set of political vulnerabilities.)

The most sophisticated distillation of the special obligation view was offered by Edward Glaeser back in April when he called upon Romney to follow Henry Clay and Wendell Willkie down the road to an honorable defeat. Though I usually agree with Glaeser, his column was rooted in the assumption that a Romney victory was extremely unlikely. Boston disagrees.


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