Much ado has been made of Barack Obama's purported declaration that "If you've got a business- you didn't build that." Democratic pleas that the President's remarks are being taken out of context will have little effect in certain quarters of the electorate. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Republicans contend, that Obama was wholesale denying the value of individual initiative and entrepreneurship. He was, however, arguing that our social responsibilities and indebtedness remain robust, even grow, as our individual success contributes to the general prosperity. That message will never be welcome among voters who are persuaded that taxes must never be raised on "job creators," no matter how much context is provided for the President's phraseology.
In fairness, Mitt Romney's words have been subject to similar parsing in the course of this campaign. In August of 2011, during a soapbox talk at the Iowa State Fair, Romney made the unfortunately phrased declaration that "corporations are people, my friend." Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called this a "shocking admission." Republicans would correctly point out that Romney's words are only shocking if you misconstrue his meaning and elide his subsequent remarks. The former Governor did not mean that corporations themselves have the moral status of human beings, but that "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people."
Still, put into the larger context of his campaign message, Romney's statement does draw a clear contrast between his perspective and that of the President. This June in Wisconsin, Romney accused the President of being "out of touch," saying, "He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he
not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for
us to cut back on government and help the American people." If we place this quote next to Romney's declaration of last August; what other implication can we draw except that corporations are people, but firemen, policemen, and teachers are not?
Romney's defenders would no doubt insist that this is a misreading of the candidate's words. At the very least, however, they beg an inquiry into his larger perspective. If Romney is spontaneously capable of articulating that "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people;" why is he not likewise intuitively capable of acknowledging that everyone rescued, protected or educated by the groups he denigrates are people too?
Though a narrow focus on a candidate's phrasing offers little insight into his or her policy positions, the extemporaneous choice of words can open a window onto a candidate's general values, priorities, and political reflexes. Whether any of the statements quoted above represent genuine "gaffes," they do in some sense offer a picture of two general world views. The President spontaneously stresses our responsibilities to one another over the rewards due individual initiative. Mitt Romney, by contrast, reflexively exalts monetary earnings and and is dismissive of personal labor. This fall the voters must decide which perspective they find more humanistic and humane, which represents a clearer and more positive break with our recent past, and which will best serve the nation in a time of economic distress.