Peggy Noonan had a column a day or so ago in the Wall Street Journal in which she methodically detailed the ineptitude of the Romney campaign, and mused about what it might take to get that effort back on track. Much of what she had to say was familiar, conventional campaign wisdom to those of us who’ve spent lots of time in and around political contests, but it was her next-to-last paragraph that really struck me. Noonan wrote:
A campaign is a communal exercise. It isn’t about individual entrepreneurs. It’s people pitching in together, aiming their high talents at one single objective: victory.
That is demonstrably true–and not just true about political campaigns, but about the country’s political and social life. That said, it is a truth that has become, more or less explicitly, the hotly contested framework of this Presidential race.
Although the GOP took the President’s “you didn’t build that” remark out of context, Romney and the Republicans have made disagreement with what he actually did say the central theme of their message.
The President (and Elizabeth Warren, and others running for office this cycle) insist that “we are all in this together,” that citizens depend upon each other and our common institutions in myriad ways, large and small. The businessperson who succeeds deserves respect and admiration for his diligence and enterprise, but we also need to recognize the enabling role played by government: Mr. Successful ships his goods on roads provided by the taxpayer; he depends for security on police and firefighters supported by our taxes; he hires workers trained in our public schools. Ms. Businessperson sells those goods in markets that would not exist but for a legal and economic infrastructure that creates the rules and stability without which people do not have the confidence–or often the wherewithal–to consume. (People in third world countries are not inherently less entrepreneurial, but even if they create a better mousetrap, there are few people able to buy it.)
Recognizing the importance of social infrastructure does not diminish the value of success or hard work, as the Romney campaign has charged. To the contrary, it is the refusal to recognize our essential interconnectedness and interdependence that is not only arrogant, but dangerous and short-sighted.
The GOP’s chosen message has been “it’s all about us, the job creators. There are makers and takers, and we are the makers. And we did it all by ourselves.”
The Democratic message this cycle (with apologies to Ms. Noonan) has been “A country is a communal exercise. It isn’t about individual entrepreneurs. It’s people pitching in together, aiming their high talents at one single objective: a fair shake for everyone.”
As the President said at the Democratic Convention, it’s about citizenship.