Mitt Romney is, without doubt, a representative of contemporary capitalism, a spectacularly rich financier who got his money not by making things but by buying and selling companies, exploiting leverage, and a whole bunch of other things folks like you and me will never have the privilege of understanding. So it isn't surprising that this campaign has featured a debate about the nature of our economic system. That debate could be a salutary and educational discussion that leaves us all more informed and aware. Or it could be an occasion for some of the most vile demagoguery you could imagine. Do you need to ask which course it will take?
By now, we can all agree that a large portion of the Republican party has created in their minds an imaginary Barack Obama, one who is either a literal or philosophical foreigner (Romney has begun dropping the word "foreign" in as often as he can when discussing Obama), who hates America (here's Rush Limbaugh on Monday: "I think it can now be said, without equivocation—without equivocation—that this man hates this country"), and one who hates success, hates rich people, and hates capitalism itself. And if you can't find any actual evidence for these propositions—if "Barack Obama hates job creators so much he actually wants to increase the top income tax rate by 4.6 percentage points!" doesn't have quite the ring you'd like—then it isn't hard to find words you can twist around to make your point.
Which brings us to the word "that." If you've been to a Mitt Romney speech in the last day or so, or if you've watched Fox News or listened to conservative talk radio, or even if you've watched some mainstream news*, you would have heard that Barack Obama said that people who own businesses didn't actually build their businesses. Only a secret socialist could say such a thing, and Romney and his allies assure us that Obama did indeed say that and he is indeed that kind of person. But here's what Obama actually said:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President -- because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
When this quote worked its way up from the conservative media to the Romney campaign, they knew they had something. Sure, it's obvious that when Obama said "you didn't build that" he was talking about roads and bridges. But who cares? You can take that one sentence out of context, lie about what "that" in the quote refers to, and you've got evidence of Obama's America-hating heart.
And yes, it is a lie, a word I use carefully. Romney and the people who work for him know full well what Obama was and wasn't saying. But they decided to go ahead and engage in an act of intentional deception anyway, and I'm sure he'll be repeating it many times.
There's actually a discussion to be had about the radical individualism that has taken over the conservative movement, which Obama was responding to in his speech. I'd be interested to hear Mitt Romney's thoughts on it, not in a "gotcha" kind of way, but because I genuinely want to know what his response to Obama's arguments would be. Does he think that every rich person got rich completely on their own and owes nothing to the society that created the context that allowed their wealth to be created? I really have no idea. But the deeper into this campaign we go, the more it becomes clear that we'll never know what Romney really believes about anything. And he may not be the most dishonest presidential candidate we've ever seen, but give him time—he's working on it.
*Last night I saw Peter Alexander on NBC Nightly News do a story in which he showed Obama's quote clipped exactly as Romney did, making it seem that Romney was being absolutely truthful. It was one of the most maddening acts of journalistic jackassery I've seen in some time.