Since the Republican National Convention wrapped up last week, the Romney/Ryan campaign has abandoned its brief pretense of running a positive campaign based on leveling with the American people about serious issues. It's back to all attacks on President Obama, all the time. On Tuesday they issued multiple press releases gleefully celebrating President Obama's giving himself a grade of "incomplete" on his first term. On the campaign trail and in interviews Ryan has repeatedly asserted, as Romney argued in his nomination acceptance speech at the RNC on Thursday, that President Obama cannot tell the American people they are better off than they were four years ago. (As Media Matters points out, cable news channels, especially Fox News, have complicitly repeated this charge without offering context of the economic freefall we were in when President Obama took office.)
A close examination of the GOP's major speeches from last week shows that even their nominally affirmative case for small government was internally inconsistent. The crucial applause lines actually undermined their arguments. Between that, and their immediate return to unvarnished negativity, it is clear that the Republican Party simply does not have a positive conservative message for this election cycle.
The RNC was supposed to be filled with homage to the virtues of private enterprise. But both of their main speakers on Thursday night—Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mitt Romney—implicitly made the case for the necessity of government instead.
When it comes to exhorting a nation to collective democratic action, private equity investment can seem a bit lacking. As anyone who watched the biographical video of Romney on Thursday night noticed, investing in a chain of office supply stores just isn’t that inspiring.
Perhaps that’s why Romney tried to summon memories of America’s supposed mid-20th century greatness, he talked about a government program. Although he never actually used the acronym NASA, that’s what he was talking about when he said:
When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, the question wasn’t whether we'd get there, it was only when we'd get there.
The soles of Neil Armstrong's boots on the moon made permanent impressions on OUR [emphasis in original text] souls and in our national psyche. Ann and I watched those steps together on her parent's sofa. Like all Americans we went to bed that night knowing we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world.
God bless Neil Armstrong.
Tonight that American flag is still there on the moon. And I don't doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong's spirit is still with us: that unique blend of optimism, humility and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.
Nothing about this reflects the advantages of limited government. The space program is a governmental endeavor, not the work of some plucky businessman. Its success illustrates the virtues of collectivism, not individuality. Indeed, Romney’s kicker: “you need an American,” makes no sense. Neil Armstrong did not get to the moon by himself. What the moon landing shows is that for “the really big stuff” you need the American government.
Similarly, Rubio said, “Mitt Romney knows America's prosperity didn't happen because our government simply spent more. It happened because our people used their own money to open a business.” But, as anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the modern economy knows, the vast majority of new businesses are not opened entirely with the proprietor’s own money. Rather, they borrow money from a bank or—as Romney would surely point out—venture capitalists. This in turn, necessitates a functioning banking system. As we have learned over the years, a functioning banking system requires governmental institutions such as the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
As President Obama might have said, with regard to everything from the monetary system to the space program, "you didn't build that."
Meanwhile, one of the most oft-repeated anti-Obama talking points was taken to its longical conclusion, and its absurdity was thus demonstrated. Republicans like to joke that President Obama has never had a "real" job, meaning one in the private sector. This has even morphed into a shorthand that he has never had a job before the presidency at all. For example, Tim Pawlenty joked in his speech in Tampa: "Barack Obama's failed us. But look, it's understandable. A lot of people fail at their first job."
Strictly speaking, this is not actually true. Besides the fact that most people would probably consider community organizer, law professor, book author, state senator and U.S. senator to be jobs, Obama worked for several years after college at the Business International Group, a publishing and advisory firm that assisted U.S. companies abroad. (It was later bought by the Economist Group and is now part of the Economist Intelligence Unit.)
But current Republican ideology holds that jobs in the non-profit sector or public sector are not real jobs. And since Obama never talks about his brief foray into the for-profit sector, Republicans figure they can assume their listeners won't know about it. So, in his acceptance speech at the RNC, Mitt Romney said, "[Obama] took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business. Jobs to him are about government."
Even just a cursory examination of this claim shows it makes a lot less sense than Romney--and his audience, which cheered enthusiastically--assumes it does. Business is a broad category: a teenager who spends his summer flipping burgers at McDonald's works "in a business." Is Romney seriously suggesting that such work experience would make one better qualified for the presidency than serving in the United States Senate and teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago? Taken literally, Romney's comments would mean just that.
Coincidentally enough, Romney's running mate Paul Ryan and his cheerleaders in the conservative media have actually cited the summer he spent working at a McDonald's as evidence of his real life experience. That's because, if you accept Romney's standard of presidential qualification, his running mate is otherwise badly unqualified. Ryan has spent his entire professional career working in politics and political advocacy. And yet this does not bother Romney nor his supporters.
It shouldn't. There is absolutely no reason to think that Herman Cain--a successful businessman in the fast food industry, who has a ridiculous tax plan and demonstrated disturbing ignorance of international affairs--would make a better president than Paul Ryan. The president's effect on the economy comes through macroeconomic policy making. One can understand that well, or poorly, from a variety of backgrounds. Republicans know this. That's why they've nominated career politicians for the presidency or vice-presidency before, and they happily nominated Ryan this year. There is nothing wrong with that. But it means there is something very hypocritical about their attack on Obama's work experience.
Given the rank hypocrisy of their convention rhetoric, and their reversion to one-note economic attacks on Obama immediately thereafter, it looks like Romney's hopes of reinvention his image and reframing the race will surely be dashed.