It was a political gift — or at least, Republicans thought it was.
When President Obama said in a speech in July that businessmen didn’t succeed entirely by themselves, but had benefited from government-funded roads and government-educated students, the GOP smelled blood. Mitt Romney denounced Obama’s comments, saying they slighted the hard work of entrepreneurs. Within days, Republicans launched a barrage of attack ads.
The attacks culminated at the GOP convention, when an entire night was devoted to speakers who extolled private enterprise and belittled the notion the government deserved credit for individual success stories. A sea of delegates waved “we built it” signs.
But far from damaging the president, some Democrats now say, the prominent place the Republicans gave to ideological statements about the role of government might have focused the campaign in a direction that could be favorable for the president — into an argument about underlying values, instead of specific policy proposals.
“They overplayed it, and I think turned off people who understand that we’re all in this together,” Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway said of the GOP attacks. “It’s created a whole platform for the Democrats to drive their bigger theme, and in the end that’s going to benefit the Democrats.”
Far from putting the president on the defensive, many speakers at the party’s convention last week seemed more than happy to use the Republican “we built it” slogan as a springboard to draw contrasts with their own approach to governing.
Former president Bill Clinton, in his address, said that by so emphatically downplaying the government’s role in creating economic opportunity, the GOP showed it would pursue a “winner-take-all, you’re-on-your own society,” instead of one of “shared opportunities and shared responsibility.” Obama, in his speech, said that while he honored entrepreneurship, Democrats also “believe in something called citizenship.”
Since the conventions, some snippets of evidence have emerged that the GOP’s bid to focus the race on values may actually be helping Obama. In a CNN poll released Monday, the percentage who said Obama shares their values ticked upward, paralleling his small climb in opinion polls since the convention. In an ABC poll conducted after the end of the Democratic convention, Obama had a 10-point edge on the question of who better understands people’s economic problems.
Still, Republicans are confident that their line of attack, and the testimonials about small business at the Republican convention, helped Romney by raising questions about Obama’s attitudes toward business.
“I think it probably was a net positive” for Romney, said John Brabender, a Republican strategist who worked for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, one of Romney’s opponents in the GOP primary. “Republicans agree that government can help people as well. The question is, ‘what is government’s role?’ This president, Republicans believe, thinks that government knows best.”
The series of attacks began after Obama gave an address in Virginia that partly echoed a now-famous speech by Elizabeth Warren last year arguing that since successful businesses benefit from government-built infrastructure and rely on public schools to educate employees, they owed a debt to society. “Part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along,” she said.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said July 13. “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 first waves of GOP attacks mischaracterized Obama’s speech, claiming he said businessmen didn’t build their own businesses; in context, Obama was saying they hadn’t built roads and bridges. But Obama’s critics stood by their broader criticism, claiming that the president’s emphasis on the role of government aid in his speech revealed a mindset that minimized the work of entrepreneurs.
At a campaign appearance days later at a truck company in Roxbury, Romney castigated Obama, saying the Virginia speech betrayed a belief that it is “a collective success of the whole society that somehow builds enterprises like this.”
Yet even before the conventions, it was unclear whether rallying to the defense of business owners — a relatively small group who, polls showed, already favored Romney before the skirmishes over Obama’s Virginia speech — was an effective general election strategy.
David King, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said pounding Obama on the speech might have helped fire up conservative voters who form the core of the GOP, but the Romney campaign may have erred in trying to inject the issue into the general election campaign at the convention.
“ ‘We built it’ is a play to the base of the Republican Party and it may well have worked for the base. I don’t know if it did or didn’t,” King said. “But if the play they want to make now is to the thin sliver of persuadable voters, those kinds of blandishments don’t really work.”