20 September 2012

Off the cuff

Many people have said many astute things about U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney's "off the cuff" remarks at a fundraiser, concerning the 47% who will never vote for him. There's just one small angle I want to work. Why do presidents and candidates make assertions to audiences who may actually know as much as, or more than, they do about the subject being addressed? What is it about the heady atmosphere of being president or candidate that causes them to resort to transparent exaggerations and fatuous generalizations? And what do their audiences gain from such miscalibrated, perhaps unintended, candor?

The sad and classic example I addressed in this blog was George W. Bush's speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on radical Islam, back in October 2005. Surely a good part of his audience knew more about his subject than he did, and probably most of them could spot the lack of logic, the rhetorical shell games, and the outright misrepresentations in his speech. What did he expect to gain from lecturing experts? Was it a way of cautioning America's "enemies" that, in the struggle for American domination of the Middle East, our prejudices would be more decisive than facts or faith?

The audience at such an event has its own motivations to attend, of course. It is important to know the mindset and motivations of influential world leaders. It's not that a president's or candidate's audience expects to hear things that they never knew about the Middle East or the economy or tax policy; instead, they want to understand what choices those leaders might make that could affect the world situation and their own personal fortunes.

So, now we have Mitt Romney's 47% comments to a supposedly private audience. Did Romney's listeners expect to learn new facts about the economic or political makeup of the United States? Did they pay $50,000 to get some kind of insight into history or politics or economics that they hadn't already learned on their way to being able to afford that kind of meal? More likely, they were either simply hoping to bask in the glow of their already-chosen favorite--the glow that comes from being an insider among insiders--or hoping for confirmation that they had made the right choice. Judging from the remarks on the transcript, some were sincerely looking for ways to help their candidate, or were there to offer suggestions. (Audience member: But what do we do? Just tell us what we can help....)

What they received for their $50,000 was--just as with the Bush speech to the National Endowment for Democracy--insight into the apparent worldview of their speaker, based on the assumptions evident in his speech: that the 150 million or more covered by his bold generalization can't be fair in assessing their candidates; that they vote only based on personal benefit and not what's best for the country; that they are uniformly unwilling to take responsibility. From other parts of his speech, we learn that Palestinians have no interest in peace with Israel and are committed to Israel's destruction. (That would be news to every Palestinian I know personally.) He even talks about how his campaign "uses" his wife.  (We use Ann sparingly right now, so that people don't tired of her, or start attacking.)

Does the fact that he was supposedly in a private setting with people who'd purchased insider status excuse this kind of talk? On the one hand, it does make such sloppy delivery more understandable. The very attempt to reproduce a sort of locker-room banter in the service of that insider atmosphere is probably incompatible with the delivery of careful and cerebral analysis. But couldn't you also argue that $50,000 ought to buy you the candidate's very best game?

His remarks also betrayed exactly whom he did and didn't expect to have in the room with him. He did not expect to be talking with anyone who would see themselves in those 47% as defined by his devastating triple correlation: no income taxes, no capacity to prioritize national interest, no sense of personal responsibility. Also probably not in the paying audience: Palestinians--or anyone who understands their points of view.

Romney's defenders sometimes point out that a discussion of entitlements in the Federal budget, and the urgent issue of managing them in the service of debt reduction, is a worthy part of his campaign, and he ought to pursue it. I agree. Most thoughtful political analysts and economists, left and right, would also agree--especially if we include tax reform and industrial/agricultural subsidies in the discussion. But beyond raising the tendentious specter of a failed debt auction, Romney's remarks didn't even hint at a campaign based on these kinds of analyses and proposals. Instead, he seemed to be saying something along these lines: "Circle the wagons, $50,000-a-platers! I can't count on any votes from 47% of the potential electorate who ALL want to undermine the system that got you what you have today. If you want to keep what you have, give to my campaign!"

Wealthy people are not inherently bad people. Honest wealthy taxpayers (many of whom are also generous philanthropists) are a blessing to the commonwealth! But wealthy people who take advantage of subsidies, loopholes, and offshore tax havens to pay as little tax as possible, and get as many government benefits as possible, are the last people who should look down on those whose low incomes, military service, age, or life circumstances put them in the 47%. I honestly don't want a president who looks at people that way. In fact, I'm not even sure that Mitt Romney would want such a president, but I'd feel a lot better if he would say so himself.

What Romney got right: "...Under a broad definition of government dependence—that is, receiving federal entitlements—more than 47 percent of us are in Romney’s category." But "Romney’s comments also reveal that he has lost any sense of the social compact."

The two principal U.S. candidates address the Circle of Protection.

From the Politics Among Friends blog, hosted by George Fox University: "Romney and American Exceptionalism: The Impact of Mormonism?"

Wheaton College's Amy Black reviews "two views of our [U.S.] political ills."

Meanwhile, from the University of Chicago Divinity School: "We Are All Pussy Riot...."

2 a.m.--"The Best Time to Pray?"

Darrell Nulisch provides vocals for James Cotton's classic "Love Me Or Leave Me." James Cotton was the first bluesman I ever heard live--forty years ago this fall.

1 comment:

'Mela said...


What a coincidence!

I saw The James Cotton Band many years ago, in Poughkeepsie, NY, one October night during my college days at a great venue called "The Chance"

He was also the first Bluesman I had seen.

He blew me away!