The official theme of the GOP convention Wednesday night was "We Can Change That," but that didn’t stop several of the speakers from revisiting Tuesday’s theme, the base-rallying battle cry: “We Built It.” The message: The righteous exploitation of President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” gaffe isn’t going away.
Ever since the president stood before a crowd of supporters in Roanoke, Va., on July 13 and, while explaining why the wealthy should pay more in taxes, uttered the infamous words “If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen,” conservatives have hammered him for his disregard for small-business owners. And liberals have hammered back that Obama was taken out of context. To be fair, this is the full quote:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
Obama supporters can complain all the want. They can argue that when he said “that,” he was talking about the roads and bridges, not the business itself. It doesn’t matter. And it’s pointless to blame Mitt Romney or the RNC or anyone else for taking it out of context. Here’s why.
Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years in a fiction-writing program at a local university. I never finished the novel I aspired to write, but I did learn some valuable lessons. The most important: “It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is what you conveyed.” In the context of class, that meant when we were sharing our work and listening to feedback, we couldn’t butt in and say that we’d meant something else. We needed to take ourselves out of our own head and try to understand what our readers had heard.
In the case of Obama’s Roanoke speech, conservatives everywhere heard, ”You don’t get credit for your hard work.” I agree with the Washington Post for giving the Romney campaign four Pinocchios for repeating the truncated quote ad nauseum. I wish Romney’s team would use the full version. Because even in its full glory, it would inspire largely the same reaction. The sentiment resonates with small-business owners—and it’s small-business owners who have been most vocal in their response to Obama’s comments, from the co-owner of an Iowa deli who good-naturedly catered an Obama campaign stop in a T-shirt saying, “Government didn’t build my business” to the hardware store owner who was a bit less gracious.
Conservatives suspect that President Obama sees government as the solution to everything. Only someone who thinks government is the answer would describe a stimulus program that cost at least $185,000 per job as successful. I can’t think of a starker difference between the liberal and conservative worldviews than the Life of Julia slide show. Liberals look at that video and see a woman aided by a social safety net. Conservatives look at it and are creeped out by the fact that liberals think the very-capable-seeming Julia can’t do anything without government help.