TAMPA — Tuesday night’s events certainly seemed to please the Republican faithful. And yet there was one inconvenient problem: The essence of the GOP’s critique was based on false premises.
It started off with House Speaker John Boehner likening America to a bar-room — A bar-room where a stranger enters and starts saying clueless things. And what would the regulars do, Boehner asked? Why, they’d “throw him out.” The crowd never quite embraced what Boehner obviously hoped would become a boisterous refrain. Still, the speaker’s message became unmistakably clear when the hypothetical stranger told a business owner who had struggled to keep his enterprise afloat that he didn’t build it. Why, that’s just what … what Barack Obama has done, if one is to believe his conservative critics.
RNC chairman Reince Priebus hit the same note. “The president said, ‘if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,’ ” he lamented. “That makes me think Barack Obama has a problem with the America Dream.”
Then came actress Janine Turner, who did some similar fretting, after which country singer Lane Turner appeared to sing a song entitled – you guessed it – “I built it.” Suffice it to say that this wasn’t the end of that theme.
All in all, someone up on the facts might have been left thinking that neither Boehner nor Priebus is particularly quick on the uptake. Why? Because, though President Obama did speak the words “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” if one reads the comment in context, he clearly wasn’t disparaging businessmen. Or entrepreneurs. Or the American work ethic. Or free enterprise.
Rather, the president was recycling Elizabeth Warren’s populist pep-talk. His overarching message was that business success doesn’t depend solely on the individual business owner. Indeed, he’d said virtually that a few sentences earlier: “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.”
Now, it certainly would have been fair for the evening’s speakers to take issue with that notion. Perhaps they think that, overall, the government is more a hindrance than a help and that everyone would be better off if it got completely out of the way. Fine. That would at least make for an honest argument.
But it isn’t honest or accurate to act as though Obama’s intent was to declare that business owners had little or nothing to do with the success of their enterprise. That’s why the fact-checking sites have called previous Romney/Republican charges based on that comment false (Politifact.com) or judged the comment taken out of context in a way that ignores Obama’s meaning (Factcheck.org).
Now, Boehner and Priebus are obviously intelligent men. They surely know what Obama meant. So the questions, really, are these: Does it respect the intelligence of voters to make an out-of-context quote a major theme of the evening? And, the answer being obvious, what does it say about those who make that effort?
The second theme was another that has been judged untrue by every disinterested reporter or fact-checker that has examined it: That the Obama administration has eliminated the work requirement for welfare recipients. That claim has been so roundly debunked that it’s not worth doing it again here; interested readers can easily find a thorough discussion of it.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who emerged as Romney’s chief rival, led the charge on that one, acting so earnestly indignant that a naïve viewer might actually have thought he believed the nonsense he was spreading. (Experienced Santorum observers know he’s adept at summoning up phony indignation to propel false charges — and unapologetic when confronted with the facts.) Why, the action Obama actually hasn’t taken, despite Santorum’s insistence that he has, might well start the US on a slide away from being a republic, he warned.
In short, the evening wasn’t a remotely accurate or a tough but fair critique of the Obama administration. Nor was it a persuasive argument about the Republican approach to the problems this nation faces. Instead, it was an evening based on two damn-the-truth torpedoes launched in the hope that voters aren’t up on the facts.