"He's not one of us" has long been one of the most common electoral arguments at all levels—every election features ads all over the country where one candidate is accused of not sharing "[insert state here] values." It's become almost a cliché that Democrats talk about issues while Republicans talk about values, building an affinity with voters as they construct a wall of identity between the electorate and their Democratic opponents.
Yet it took some time for Mitt Romney to determine exactly how to show that Barack Obama was not “one of us.” The campaign tried out and then abandoned various attacks; for instance, faced with polling and focus groups telling them that voters basically like the president, the Romney campaign argued that Obama is "in over his head"—hardly the kind of attack that'll make people see your opponent as alien and threatening. But then deliverance came in the form of an infelicitous sentence Obama uttered, "You didn't build that," which they quickly ripped from its context and gave a shamelessly dishonest reading. Undeterred by the condemnations of fact checkers, Romney has reoriented his entire campaign around this one sentence, plainly believing it to be the fuel that will propel him to victory in November.
The sentence serves multiple purposes for Romney. In his tendentious reading, it allegedly reveals Barack Obama to be the anti-American every good Republican knows him to be (that's always the way it is with "gaffes"—they "reveal" that what you've been saying about your opponent all long is true). If Obama isn't the kind of radical individualist who believes the market is the expression of all virtue and the sole creator of all that is good, then is he really one of us? So a Romney surrogate can say "I wish this president would learn how to be an American," and Romney himself can then offer the slightly more polite formulation that Obama has a "very strange, and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy." Not that he's saying Obama isn't American, of course—whatever could make you think such a thing?
"You didn't build that" also gives Romney a larger theme that both encompasses his arguments about the economy and excuses him from talking specifically about the things he wants to do about it. Why is the economy still struggling? Because Barack Obama hates capitalism and small businesses. Is your plan to cut taxes for the wealthy really going to make things better? Unlike Barack Obama, I'll have an administration that is pro-entrepreneur and pro-American. Any other questions?
Because this case is a direct and personal assault on Obama, hitting him not on his performance but on what he allegedly thinks deep down in his soul, it also enables Romney to reassure his base that he shares their utter contempt for the president. And finally, "You didn't build that" allows Romney to shove small business owners into the spotlight, the better to move the conversation away from his own not-so-small private-equity business, where by buying and selling companies, often with an unsentimental ruthlessness, he so famously learned "how the economy works." And shove them he has, with ads like this one, in which a business owner takes umbrage at Obama's words and says, "We need someone who believes in America"; with a special web site where business owners are encouraged to tell their stories of how Barack Obama offended them (and download a "Built By Us" sign); and campaign events featuring "self-made" businesspeople testifying not only that they never got a lick of help from the government to create their businesses, but, more important, how deeply hurt they were at Obama's suggestion that they might have.
Liberals have snickered as one after another, the "self-made" businesspeople trotted out by the Romney campaign turn out to have benefited spectacularly from government. And not just in the way every business does, by using public roads, hiring workers educated in public schools, or having the government enforce the contracts they enter into. Instead, these businesspeople all seem to have taken advantage of municipal bonds issued for their benefit, Small Business Administration loans, or millions in government contracts. Yet they insist, with absolute sincerity, that the government never helped them at all.
Why? My guess is that these folks define "government help," particularly the kind they associate with Barack Obama, as something very different. Government help isn't something hard-working people like us get. It's something people like them get. The lazy, the shiftless, the people just trying to get over on somebody. By definition, they can't see themselves as recipients of government largesse, just like the millions of Americans who benefit from student loans, Social Security, Medicare, and any number of other programs, but claim that they've never gotten anything from the government.
And it's here that the most powerful tribal definer of all—race—comes into play. There will be no Willie Horton ads in this election, nothing so brutal and forthright. But race will be there rumbling like a bass drum beneath the melody of the campaign. Since the 1960s, when the party of government became the party of civil rights and the war on poverty, significant numbers of white Americans have seen Democrats taking something away from them so they could give it to undeserving minorities. And the Republicans have been there every step of the way to nurture and feed those resentments. I doubt there was a meeting in the Romney headquarters, or in the offices of Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, where strategists sat around a table and said, "Let's bust out the racial appeals." Making these arguments doesn't make them racists. But I'm also certain that they're not naïve enough not to realize the subtext in what they're saying and just which buttons they're pushing. When Mitt Romney tells Republicans that people who "want more stuff from the government" should "go vote for the other guy—free stuff," he knows exactly what he's doing.
Responding to those arguments doesn't make you a racist, either. Sometimes we talk as though there are only two kinds of people in the world, racists and people who aren't racist, and if you're not the former then you can only be the latter. That's obviously not true. But let's not forget that from the moment Barack Obama was judged to have a real chance of becoming president, base conservatives have been fed a steady diet of racial resentment, from Glenn Beck telling them that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people," to Rush Limbaugh telling them over and over that "Obama's entire economic program is reparations," to Andrew Breitbart's endlessly playing jukebox of racially inflammatory faux-scandals (ACORN, Shirley Sherrod, Derrick Bell). From the beginning, the conservative case against the Obama presidency has been absolutely saturated in racial resentment.
You can be sure that Mitt Romney knows this quite well. Romney is a careful student of the Republican base, in the way Alexis de Tocqueville was a student of Americans. As a visitor to their land, he has worked hard to understand them and determine what makes them tick. And he knows well that nothing will keep them enthusiastic about his candidacy more than massaging their anger and resentment.
So Romney will continue to contrast his love for the hardworking, self-reliant business owner with Obama's hatred of same, and express his outrage at the way the president allegedly attacks them in the service of those who want "free stuff." He'll stop short of saying that Obama is literally a foreigner, though he'll make sure you know that the president doesn't "believe in America" and has a philosophy that is "foreign to the American experience." He's not just wrong, Romney says, he's alien from people like you and me. It may have taken Romney a while to arrive at this line of attack, but I suspect that he'll be sticking with it from now on.