Remember when "you didn't build that" was going to be the ticket to the White House for Mitt Romney? Seems like a long time ago, but for a while there the entire Romney campaign reoriented itself around this alleged gaffe that Barack Obama had committed. They printed banners about it, they organized events about it, they made TV ads about it, they made it the theme of their convention. And what happened? It just didn't work. The contrast with the Obama's campaign's favorite Romney gaffe, the secretly recorded "47 percent" video, is so striking it sums up everything that has gone wrong for the Romney campaign and right for the Obama campaign.
Let's start with "you didn't build that." The first reason the attack failed was that it relied on ripping Obama's words from their context and giving them a reading that was so tendentious it bordered on the absurd. Could anyone who didn't already think Obama is a socialist believe that he said to himself, "I'm going to go out and say that people who own businesses didn't build their own businesses"? Romney was trying to convince everyone to believe something that only the most partisan Republicans believe, namely that Barack Obama hates capitalism and business itself. Romney made himself the champion of allegedly insulted business owners, who are heroes to conservatives but still make up a minority of the population (most of us actually work for other people). A further exploration of the topic—to what degree businesses rely on government and the contributions of taxpayers—made Romney's position less and less persuasive (the Romney campaign kept trotting out Republican business owners who supposedly built everything they had with no help from the government, only to find that one after another found success through government loans and government contracts). And finally, the Obama statement reinforced just one of the two themes the Romney campaign has toggled between, and the less persuasive one at that. They've never been able to decide whether Obama is a failure or a sinister threat to American values, but with "you didn't build that" they went with the latter. In every way, their enthusiasm for this gaffe was about conservatives talking to other conservatives.
The "47 percent" video was different in every way. It didn't take anything out of context; it was an extended riff of Romney's that got worse with each passing sentence. The idea that Romney cares more about the wealthy than the middle class or poor is believed not only by Democrats but by most voters. The group being insulted wasn't a small minority but fully half the country (and virtually everyone at one time or another). The more the 47 percent question was explored, with discussions of who pays which taxes and why, the less persuasive Romney's position became. Finally, the Obama campaign's interpretation of the gaffe—that Romney was demonstrating that he's a disconnected rich guy who doesn't care about regular people—reinforced the single, unwavering primary theme of the Obama campaign.
It was an incredible stroke of luck for the Obama campaign that somebody made that video. But in truth, it was probably likely it would have happened sooner or later. Mitt Romney does fundraisers with wealthy donors practically every day. One can't possibly believe that was the first and only time he went off on his little 47 percent speech. It probably wasn't even the tenth or the twentieth. In any case, it allowed the Obama campaign to produce the new spot below, which could prove to be the most effective ad of the election. It's just Romney's own words, juxtaposed over images of regular Americans. It's brutal, but Romney can't say it's misleading or unfair, since all we hear is him talking: