Rick Perlstein, a elegant and perceptive left leaning writer, wrote a breathtaking account of sixties era polarization called “Nixonland”, which he marred only at the end by weirdly inquiring whether American ideological opposites secretly wish to kill each other. The answer is emphatically no, but based on the two most infamous “gaffes” of this cycle—Mitt Romney on the untaxed lower and working class and Barack Obama on the parentage of successful businesses—the truth might be that they would just happily tax the hell out of the other side.
In fairness, which inadvertent coining of a catch phrase, “the 47 percent”, or “You didn’t build that” lives on as a classic terminal wound, and which ends up being peripheral noise, is entirely unclear at week’s end: Gallup’s tracking poll still shows the race deadlocked; on the other hand, a flurry of other state by state polls this week showed more good news than not for Barack Obama, who leads in every large swing state even as a battery of smaller state polls remain in a statistical tie. And there is a lot of fog in this race, more than usual even by the standard of instant, all-day news and Twitter.
But it is striking that this year’s verbal blunders are different in kind and nature from their ancestors in prior races: John McCain’s “the economy is fundamentally sound” during the week Lehman Brothers capsized; John Kerry’s “I voted for it before I voted against it”, George W. Bush’s “do they think Social Security is some kind of federal program?” ranged from the inarticulate to the clumsy, to the horribly timed, but not one of them seemed to reflect any footprints around a larger ideological perspective. Rather than being hints of a future program, they were backfires from notably uneloquent politicians trying to riff their way through a lull in their prepared texts.
This campaign’s bloopers are made of sterner stuff. While neither nominee meant to contribute to the popular culture, or hand a grenade to their adversary, it is striking that both managed, inartfulness aside, to neatly articulate a major premise of their respective bases, and it is equally revealing that both gaffes were offered up in settings where the candidates were trying to rally those bases. It is a fact that decisive majorities of Democrats do regard the accumulation of wealth as a perk aided by government tax breaks and subsidies, while comparable numbers of Republicans take umbrage at a tax configuration that in their few, burdens achievement while liberal politicians sling arrows at the supposed selfishness of the over-taxed affluent. To substantial camps in both the right and left, the world seems stocked with either cronies or freeloaders.
Both views are depressingly wrong in polar ways: much of the left is far too dismissive of the confluence of audacity and leadership skill it takes to grow any large or small corporate entity, much of the right is too indifferent to the anxiety of middle and low income Americans whose end of the year tax bills are offset with deductions, but who still shell out sizable chunks of their take-home pay in Social Security taxes and the weekly payroll tax bite, and who are pinched by tuition, parental care, and health insurance premiums.
The continuing fluidity of this race, the fact that no Obama bump seems to last and Romney’s resilience in the face of what surely can’t be the campaign he planned to run, is no doubt connected to the fact that the nebulous, independent middle may have a simultaneous affinity for each side’s straw-man about winners and losers: their suspicion may be that both the top and bottom are coddled, a mishmash that perhaps, a reincarnated Ross Perot or a 20 years younger Pat Buchanan might have ferociously tapped to genuinely destabilize the system this year.
It seems settled that neither Obama nor Romney are running as candidates who would confront the flaws in their bases’ sketch of American society, and that each campaign’s outreach to the middle is in the form of a sledge-hammer at the other side. That eventuality is strategically unsettling for Romney, who has the bona fides of governing a famously ungovernable state with a Republican cohort that was too anemic to be of much help. It is fundamentally distressing for Obama, whose principal rationale to lead was a transformative presidency that he has openly discarded as unrealistic and unworkable.
As to which statement is the truer window into the next four years, I would still venture Obama’s broadside against materialism in Roanoke: while I side with the camp that thinks Obama has morphed from centrist to Man of the Left out of tactical convenience, more than concealed design, “you didn’t build that” is not some conceptual bolt from the blue. The skepticism Obama expressed toward the genuine autonomy of markets is of a piece with his administration’s regular refrain about their unfair, inequitable ways.
Unless Romney rolls out a plan to repeal mortgage deductions and the earned income tax credit, the musings at his fundraiser seem untethered to policy. The swift and deserved push-back from the intellectual center-right regarding Romney’s comments also guarantees that there is no negligible constituency in Republican governing circles for actionable items to make the 47 percent cough up more.
And therein lies a choice that won’t move souls but is huge enough: one well developed and flawed theory of reasserting government as the dominant civil force in our society versus a conservative work in progress, but one whose practitioners are at least self-critical of their own ranks and their party’s prior limitations. At this gray time in our politics, self-critical is good.