Beltway Media Cynicism? Yeah, You Built That
The 2012 campaign got off to a hopeful start in the never-ending battle between truth and cynicism. When the Romney campaign put up an ad last November that took a 2008 line of Barack Obama’s blatantly out of context—“If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,” a line that was paraphrasing a John McCain adviser—the political press corps jumped all over it, and essentially shamed the Romney campaign into backing off that attack, no easy thing to do given that Romney advisers initially defended the ad with an “anything goes” breeziness. Similarly, when Democrats jumped all over Romney’s “I like to fire people” line, plenty of reporters—including some at liberal outfits—dutifully noted that, amusing as the line was, Romney was actually making a point about health insurance, not laying off workers. And, to the Obama campaign’s credit, I’m not aware of any big ads they’ve run trying to snatch that line out of context for an easy hit.
But cynicism has regained the upper hand this week, in a big way, with the Republicans’ out-of-context trumpeting of a single, infelicitous line from Obama’s recent riff, echoing Elizabeth Warren, about the need for public investment to sustain economic growth:
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.
There is actually a pretty good argument to be had over this riff—an argument that gets to the heart of what the 2012 election is about, as my colleague Jonathan Cohn noted this morning. How much public investment is needed? How much, and whom, should we be taxing to pay for it? But Republicans aren’t engaging in that argument. Instead, they have plucked out the single line—“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”—which makes it sound like Obama’s “that” refers to the business, not to the roads and bridges of the previous line. (If you have any doubt that Obama meant the roads and bridges, see David Weigel.) They’ve plucked out that one line and are using it in a huge barrage of multiple ads, the most brazen of which is probably this one, by American Crossroads. (The Romney campaign’s Web video using the line was also a tour de force of sneaky splicing.)