Hilary Rosen’s put-down of Ann Romney has operated in a remarkably generous manner for all sides of the dispute. For Republicans, the incident has been galvanizing, sympathetically raising the profile of Mitt Romney’s strongest validator, and reviving familiar arguments about liberal condescension toward traditional family structures. For Team Obama, the lightning fast denunciations of Rosen were an opportunity to claim solidarity with non professional married females who have lagged in their enthusiasm for the president in most surveys; and to simultaneously highlight the wealth gap between the Romneys and those same non professional marrieds.
Even for Hilary Rosen, while her 33rd visit to the White House has been indefinitely postponed, she is now another previously interchangeable DC consultant whose business will thrive from the glow of 15 minutes of fame.
So, spare the ritualistic outrage over the Rosen comment, and the dissection of whether she was an aberration or just speaking out of school, long enough to consider the following: an election that seemed destined to be about job growth and consumer confidence is taking on broader dimensions.
For the first time since 1972, the electorate is about to be treated to a debate between two divergent, contradictory views of our social and economic culture: one modernist and identity conscious at the same time, the other more rooted in the attachments of neighborhood and religion. Each is loaded with its sense of suspicions, even resentments about the other. The Obama half of this equation is at ease with the realignment of the country into a multi-cultural hive that divvies out policy perks in line with the agenda of the nation’s organized sects, from unions to racial minorities to gays to feminists. The Republican side of the equation finds that same power structure balkanizing, and fears that it is the handiwork of an intellectual, cosmopolitan elite. Liberals will dismiss that skepticism as the backlash of conservatives finally encountering a power structure they won’t profit from; conservatives will rebut that liberals are pitting Americans against each other based on a hierarchy of grievance.
The liberal camp may not sneer as derisively as their predecessors did forty years ago, but they still harbor a jaundiced view of open evangelism or devoutness as a veil for a retrograde approach to gender and sexual relationships. The right, in turn, still feels sneered at, and senses that the liberal respect for diversity stops at precisely the point overt faith rears its head. On economic issues, the left is convinced that the rules of the market are rigged to favor the affluent. The right is just as convinced that those rules would for the most part work fine, if government would only get out of the practice of interfering with and over-regulating that same market.
To be sure, both sides cling to rhetorical themes that overstate the core of their actual complaints. When the left alleges a right-wing “war on women”, it has in mind constraints on the choices of women who have entered the labor market, and who hold particular aspirations for climbing the ranks in that market. In contrast, when the right describes its fears about “runaway, big government” spending, it is focused disproportionately on spending that subsidizes the “undeserving”, whether they are the poor at one end of the spectrum or Wall Street banks at the other end (and the political right concludes that it is the fact that both ends are so infected with irresponsibility that renders them undeserving).
If the genius of Barack Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992 was minimizing the ideological space between liberals and independents, and if Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both won elections by making conservatism more appealing to independents, the 2012 campaign already seems a more deliberately polarizing kind of enterprise. An incumbent whose approval ratings seven months from election are less than those of any president who has gotten reelected since Truman, and a challenger whose favorable ratings in the same time frame are the worst since Goldwater, will forego persuasion for a rallying of their party’s respective coalitions. Each camp will assume a divided electorate and will focus on making its half of the divide more passionate, more determined to vote than its counterpart. Each will promise to protect the self-interest of its loyalists from all manner of real and imagined threats from the other side.
So, there will be numerous examples of last week’s flare-up over the culture, many extra doses of contrived outrage while both sides deploy their own versions of coded dog-whistles. Both Obama and Romney are about to run campaigns that are altogether different from how their parties have won power in the last generation—or, for that matter, from how they made their own respective breakthroughs to statewide office. Is it any wonder that the loser is likely to end up discredited, and that the winner will have close to half the country still dead-set against him?