The New Anti-Romney Ad And The Death Of “Compassionate Conservatism”
If there’s anyone out there who still worries Barack Obama may not have the mettle to run the salt-the-earth negative campaign that his stewardship over a lackluster economy requires, they need to stop. Right now. Watch the video above, the latest ad from the unofficial White House Super PAC, if you doubt me.
If you can’t watch the video, here’s its intended takeaway: Due to his boundless greed, Mitt Romney laid off an innocent steel worker, stripped him of his medical insurance, and let the man’s wife die of undiagnosed cancer as a consequence. And he doesn’t even care.
That’s about as cutthroat an ad as you’re going to see from a Presidential campaign. (Of course, technically, Super PACs and campaigns are not supposed to coordinate with one another… technically.) To a significant degree, however, it doesn’t represent anything new. In other words, Democrats are continuing Phase I of their anti-Romney strategy while at the same time enacting a slow rollout of Phase II. Brief reminder: Phase I involves establishing Mitt Romney as the type of plutocrat who’d trip Tiny Tim and laugh about it; Phase II is about showing how the GOP platform is a policy manifestation of Romney’s Robber Baron ways.
Nuking a guy’s job and killing his wife in order to move from the .01 percent to the .001 percent? As far as American workers are concerned, that’s about as Robber Baron-y as a modern capitalist’s likely to get.
So the ad’s viciousness is noteworthy more for its difference in degree rather than kind — but that’s not the only thing going on. d At the very end of the commercial, the narrative lens shifts from the steelworker’s tragic story to his perception of how Romney would feel upon hearing it. He first says that Romney doesn’t “realize” the havoc he’s wrought; but then he says — and this is the final word of the ad — “I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.” It may sound like a minor or even irrelevant change in focus, but I think it tells us something significant about how Obama’s team thinks the President will win.
Despite Republican claims to the contrary, Obama is most decidedly not running for reelection as an anti-capitalist. As any lefty will tell you, probably with no small amount of bitterness, Barack Obama’s antipathy for the free market system has been greatly exaggerated. (If nothing else, four years of Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary should put those kind of questions to rest.) That’s not to say that there are no differences between Obama and Romney’s approaches to capitalism and the state. There are. But they’re in a sense differences of temperament — or, to use the ad’s chosen phrase, “concern.”
Fundamentally, Obama’s got no problem with Mitt Romney’s private equity work. Back when this issue was first raised by Democrats, Obama called private equity “a healthy part of the free market” that is “set up to maximize profits.” What Obama has challenged, then and now, is Romney’s assertion that his sterling work in private equity can be pointed to as a model for how successful he’d be as President. Obama’s counter is simple: The skills required to excel at the former are not necessarily conducive to being good at the latter. You can be a good butcher, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’d make a great chef.
An equivalent distinction holds true when you compare the two men’s views on post-industrial capitalism in general. Neither candidate wants to significantly alter the contours of today’s economic system. They both not only accept the status quo’s “creative destruction” as inevitable, but embrace it as an overall good. Yet while Obama supports the free market with caveats, arguing that the sometimes destructive nature of capitalism requires the state to offer its citizens palliative services, Romney’s endorsement of the free market is total, unburdened by all that troublesome nuance. He’s unconcerned.
Now, I doubt Romney actually doesn’t care about this steelworker or his now-deceased wife. He’s become a rightwing Republican, sure, but he’s not a monster. Yet a central tenet of today’s GOP holds that one’s concerns over the hardships of capitalism should not be translated into public policy. It’s a private matter, one for Churches and other pillars of civil society to worry about — not the state. Most Democrats, Obama included, hold a different view. They’d argue that while civil society is essential, it’s not enough. They’d call Republicans heartless, uncaring, cold.
Republicans have historically tried to rebut these charges by moderating their policy platform and by portraying their candidates in the most humanizing, caring light possible. “Compassionate conservatism” is but the most recent and most shrewdly conceived iteration of an age-old gambit. It’s worked, too. Bush the younger’s domestic policies were in many ways regressive and geared towards distributing wealth upward. But he had compassion, and that branding was enough to assuage any worries voters might have about voting for someone so rightwing.
Romney’s at a twofold disadvantage as compared with Bush. For one thing, he’s not as talented a politician as Bush; when he tries to empathize with his audience, it doesn’t work. He sounds like an actor — and a bad one at that. Even worse, though, is the way the GOP has moved rightward from Bush. It may be a bitter joke to the Left, but “compassionate conservatism” is, to much of the Right, a hideous memory, a gateway drug to big government spending à la Bush’s Medicare Part D. If you’re a GOP pol who wants to survive the Tea Party onslaught, you run away, fast, when “compassionate conservatism” enters the room.
For Mitt, the GOP’s lurch to the right — both in style and substance — has made it more difficult than ever for to successfully combat the usual Dem charges of inhumanity. And that’s what the Obama Team is exploiting in this new ad. It’s an irony only the weird, hypocritical, discombobulated world of American politics could produce: In order to be kind, Democrats are being very, very cruel.