I went back and listened to Barack Obama’s 2008 fundraising gaffe about people in small towns who have grown “bitter” and so they “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who are not like them …” to compare it with Mitt Romney’s “47%” monstrosity. And it’s interesting: there are similarities, but the differences are greater, and Romney’s is far worse. The greatest similarity, of course, is that both candidates were playing to the prejudices of their funders: Democrats boggled by (mostly white) working-class people who don’t “vote their economic self-interest,” Republicans convinced that they are carrying a nation of (mostly minority) freeloaders and government employees on their backs. The greatest difference is that Obama was describing a part of the country that actually exists, although in a patronizing and inaccurate way, and Mitt Romney was giving credence to a statistical chimera — in fact, he was slagging off a majority of his most devoted supporters.
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In context, Obama was talking about small-town America, a place where the jobs “have been gone for 25 years now” and “nothing has replaced them.” Both Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to address this central economic problem, he said, and so the residents grow “bitter” and start to cling to their guns and Bibles. But Obama, the Whole Foods arugula shopper, ignored the fact that a great many gun owners are not bitter but joyful in the hunt — indeed, that they derive as much pleasure from their sport as Obama does from basketball or golf. Nor did he understand that in many small towns religion is a source of service and good deeds and community, of drug treatment and food banks, as well as the pure peace of prayerful meditation. But Obama was right about the larger picture: there was a fear and bitterness in white small-town America that had its roots in the changing economy and expressed itself in anger that some people — immigrants, welfare recipients (and especially, now, those on Social Security Disability) and those lazy folks at the Department of Motor Vehicles — were getting over. Those sentiments, obviously, gave rise to the Tea Party. They are undiminished today. And clearly, Obama was saying something he really believed, although — to borrow a Romney locution — inelegantly.
I’m not so sure about Romney. I’m pretty sure he’s smart enough to know that the 47% he summoned was in the category of “damned lie” statistics. I’m pretty sure he knows that the vast majority of those people work their butts off, pay federal payroll taxes (and a raft of state and local levies) or are senior citizens receiving Social Security and Medicare. I’m not sure that he has put two and two together: that a great many of the 47% — the white working-class voters and senior citizens — are Romney voters. Or that they don’t pay income taxes because of Republican tax cuts and Republican child and earned-income tax credits. But I am absolutely convinced that Mitt Romney has been inured to Republican fat-cat audiences complaining about how much they have to pay to keep the American enterprise afloat, and that he was well aware of the Fox-Rush echo-chamber formulations about food-stamp growth and dependency and people not paying federal taxes, and he was playing to those prejudices. The exigencies of fundraising have forced him to spend more time with plutocrats than average citizens this year. It’s not surprising that he’s lost track of the world as most people see it. Hell, he’s spending today — the day after this momentous gaffe — fundraising rather than trying to change the topic.
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That’s the biggest difference: Romney was playing to the fantasy prejudices of fat cats; Obama was trying to explain the very real prejudices of the white working class, especially — and this absolutely essential part of the quote was not picked up — their “antipathy toward people not like them.”
There is another difference: Obama’s gaffe was a minor tributary off the main story of the 2008 presidential campaign, which was the economic collapse. Romney’s adoption of the Fox-Rush neolibertarian sensibility, and the remedies that it assumes, is the main story of the 2012 campaign. He will have to defend his fantasy in the debates. He will have to say why he believes that 47% of the American public don’t want to “take responsibility” for their lives. He will have to say why the Republican policies at the heart of this problem — eliminating income taxes for the working class, expanding food stamps (a George W. Bush initiative), expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs (Bush again) — are bad for the country.
Romney has placed himself in an impossible position, and he’s gotten there the old-fashioned way: he’s earned it by pandering to the worst elements in his party, by embracing a phony narrative that vastly exaggerates what’s happening in this country. (Yes, entitlement programs, including Social Security Disability as well as the middle-class entitlements, do need to be reformed.) He has preached pessimism about America, seen the dark side of every issue — especially immigration, by the way — and, as we’ve now seen on Israel, taken the side of a foreign leader against our nation’s best interests. (The very Netanyahu notion that a two-state solution is a bad idea and the best way to deal with it is to pay it lip service and kick the can down the road.) All this has rendered his campaign a parachute jump into quicksand, and he is sinking fast.