Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney and the Language of Entitlement

. Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I'm interested in the reactions to Romney's "secret video". My initial thoughts on it were not the same as most. I was first impressed by Romney's campaign playbook. He recognizes that to win the election he has to get 5-7% of the electorate who voted for Obama in 2008 to vote for him this time. He knows that he can't get those votes from the 47% or so that are strict Obama partisans; he has to attract those in the middle. He understands that the best way to do this is not to vehemently attack Obama from the right -- as right partisans wish him to -- but to say "Obama's a nice guy and all, and he means well, but he's just not up to the job and I can do better". This, to me, explains quite a lot of Romney's campaign so far.

And it explains why partisans in both camps, and the partisan media on both sides, are puzzled by elements of the Romney campaign. It's because they think he should try to win over everyone (left) or speak primarily to the base (right). And he's not. He's not trying to persuade the unpersuadable. He's ignoring those on both sides who are partisans. He's targeting a very specific, very narrow audience. In purely strategic terms I think this is the right way for Romney to campaign. I think his understanding of the political space is actually pretty savvy. His crassness in targeting that middle group reinforces my priors as a materialist, so I like that too. He's basically admitting that his campaign strategy is only about getting the median voter on his side.

At first I didn't understand why Obama partisans were so offended by Romney's characterization of the voters that are off-limits to him. I read him as saying "They have a fundamentally different ideology from mine, one which believes that the government is well-suited to solve the problems of the day and which is based on an understanding that everyone is entitled to health care, food, and housing." I didn't read him as saying that the 47% of the population that are in Obama's camp are literally the exact same 47% of the population that pays no federal income tax. (I agree with Gelman's assessment that there is a correlation between the two variables, but nowhere near 100%.) Perhaps I was giving Romney too much benefit of the doubt. I see now that many Obama supporters in one 47% but not the other felt that they were being called free-riders. Since they're not they feel that they are compassionate. Hence, offense. Fair enough, I suppose, but for me that's the least interesting part of his remarks. It only sets up the rest, which is about campaign strategy. I found the outrage to be at least somewhat manufactured, as Twitter and Facebook got whipped up into a frenzy and "fact-checkers" worked overtime to parse the semantics of an improvised remark. This missed the broader point.

As the discussion has evolved -- in my case on Facebook and Twitter, but also on blogs and MSM -- I've become more interested in something else: why the right revert to the language of entitlement so quickly, and why the left gets so angry about it. It is my understanding that a central plank of the Obama platform is that the social safety net is defensible not only on grounds of economic utilitarianism, but on grounds of social justice: humans have a fundamental right to food, to housing, to health care, to education. Any just society will ensure a minimum standard of living for the worst-off among them. To make this argument is to claim that every member of a society is entitled to a minimum standard of living by virtue of being a member of that society. If this is true, then Romney's characterization of the ideology (rather than composition) of Obama partisans might be inelegant, as he said, but it isn't fundamentally wrong.

The left tends to hate it when the right accuses them of supporting entitlement programs. This I cannot understand. It seems to me that the appropriate response to this is not "Who does Romney think he is, calling us 'entitled'" but "Damn right we believe we're entitled to health care and food. Oh, and a living wage too". This is not only sensible philosophically, but pragmatically: Hayek and Friedman believed in the same thing. Rather than getting defensive, the left should use this to go on the offensive: "You don't believe in a minimum standard of living? You don't believe people are entitled to a safety net when capitalists like you blow up the economy?"

This is especially perplexing, to me, because that argument has already been won. The Romney-Ryan attack on the Affordable Care Act is now that it cuts too much from Medicare. Alright, the left should say. Let's increase Medicare spending too. The Romney campaign has now pledged to keep the biggest parts of the Affordable Care Act intact, repealing outright only the mandate tax. The Romney-Ryan campaign is not pledging to cut Social Security -- or even privatize it -- or end the food stamp program or cut education spending or in any other significant way reduce the size of the welfare state. So why not declare victory on "entitlements"? Why not own the term?

The other interesting thing about the Romney video is that he put all his cards on the table. He knows that he's the underdog. He knows which groups he has to win over. He knows he has to appeal to Hispanic voters. He knows he has to attract women voters. He knows that Obama has 40-something% of the voters locked up, and that he (Romney) has 40-something% of the voters locked up. He knows that he has to get 5-7% of voters in play to vote for him, and he knows that's going to be hard because many of them were previous Obama voters. He knows he can't win on foreign policy. He knows that Obama's signature policies -- health care, tax cuts for poor/middle class, tax increases on the wealthy -- are popular. So he's not even going to fight against Obama on the merits. His entire campaign rests on a non sequitur: the country isn't perfect, therefore I should be president.

He just gave the left his playbook, and the left complained about the font used on the title page. That strikes me as being short-sighted.

Finally, I agree with Gelman's conclusion: "I continue to be disturbed by claims that all or even most voters or one party or another are fools, dupes, moochers, bitter, etc etc, the idea that Democrats are a mix of deadbeats and trustfunders, or that Republicans are a mix of fat cats and religious fanatics."

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Romney and the Language of Entitlement
 

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