By Jonathan Bradley
Something has gone wrong with the American meritocracy. No, not the system whereby the best and brightest accelerate up through the social ranks to fame and fortune thanks to the country's free markets and bountiful opportunity. That's been looking rickety for at least the past decade, over which American incomes have stagnated even while the economy boomed. But that other American meritocracy: the mental one.
That's the great American belief that every single citizen of that great nation could one day strike it rich, if only he or she worked hard enough or was enterprising enough or lucky enough. It's that belief, supposedly, that made assaults on the well-off such a dicey prospect for American politicians. Americans don't like to stick it to the rich, the theory goes, because they reckon they've got an OK shot at joining their ranks one day.
That's why the media balked when Barack Obama's re-election team began criticising his rich and Republican opponent Mitt Romney over his days as head of Bain Capital. The Obama campaign began screening grim commercials in swing states featuring workers from a steel mill shuttered by Romney's old venture capital company. "Those guys were all rich — they all had more money than they'll ever spend — yet they didn't have the money to take care of the very people that made the money for them."
Not even Democrats were prepared to stand by the President's attack. Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of New Jersey, made headlines by denouncing the President's line of attack. "This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity, stop attacking Jeremiah Wright," Booker said on NBC's Meet the Press.
But the Obama team didn't get the message. In fact, when Vanity Fair reported on the offshore bank accounts Mitt Romney maintains in tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Obama rushed out a jaunty vox pop featuring members of the American public reacting with bafflement and disgust:
And it wasn't just Obama hammering Romney and his wealth. As the New York Times reported this past weekend, the Obama-supporting superPAC Priorities USA Action was upset by Obama's anti-Bain ads — but only because they distracted from the ones funded by the superPAC:
But in late May and early June, it wasn’t Sheldon Adelson who was drowning out the Priorities ads. Rather, the Obama campaign was inadvertently doing so. Apparently the campaign did not know or did not care about Priorities USA Action’s planned mini-blitz, for it released its own two-minute attack video focusing on Bain’s closure of GST Steel, which concluded with, “I’m Barack Obama, and I approved this message.”
Despite the conventional wisdom, it turns out that the American public isn't that supportive of Romney's wealth — or not the way he made and maintains it, anyway. The attacks on Romney's Bain background seem to be getting results. Ezra Klein has some theories as to why the campaigns are getting this right and the media is getting it wrong:
The Obama campaign’s message is coming from these experiments testing what voters want. And, judging from the approach the Obama campaign has taken, these voters want a pretty blunt attack on Bain Capital. The Obama campaign has been trying to give it to them.
The problem that I don’t think the Obama campaign anticipated, or has even really known how to deal with, is that the message voters want is not the message political elites want. Top Democrats, who have friends and funders in the private-equity community, need to defend their allies. Pundits and reporters know people in these worlds, pride themselves on being above superficial populism, and so tend to bristle at ads featuring laid-off workers who blame Bain. And then there’s Wall Street itself, which is plugged into the media, has a lot of money, and thus can make its voice hard. That’s the thing about hitting the powerful. The powerful can hit back.
The Obama campaign’s messaging might be what voters wanted to hear. In fact, given the campaign’s reliance on hard data, it’s almost surely what voters want to hear.
The question is, then: What has changed? After three years of little in the way of economic recovery, are voters simply fed up with financial wunderkinds like the Republican nominee? Do Americans only like well-off guys like, say, George Romney, Mitt's father, who, in contrast to his son, as Paul Krugman put it in a column today, "produc[ed] things people wanted to buy"? Have voters always been less tolerant of the well-off than elites would have us believe, and it's only now that Obama's campaign is breaking out the 99-per-cent rhetoric that we're seeing that? Or is this all an illusion, and the President will pay a political price for trying to stoke the fires of "class warfare"?
And even if voters genuinely do here about Romney's connections to Bain Capital and shudder, will it change their behaviour at the ballot box? As powerful as campaign advertisements can be in a race, sometimes the cold, hard economic fundamentals can be even more powerful. Mike Huckabee famously described Romney as looking "like the guy who fires you." That might not matter if voters think Obama looks like a president who, after four years, hasn't been able to persuade anyone to hire you.
9 July 2012