Ayn Rand, the favorite author of many geeky teenage boys (who generally grow out of it) and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (who didn’t), combines an extreme libertarian capitalist message with a high-Soviet-propaganda literary style. This makes parody fairly easy.
Still, it would be hard to top Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee. His Ayn Rand imitation in remarks at a private fundraiser last May, caught on video and posted on the Web by Mother Jones, is pitch-perfect. Romney observes that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes and yet feel that they are victims, entitled to have all their basic needs — housing, food, healthcare — supplied by the government. This nicely captures the contempt that Rand had, and that Romney apparently shares, for those who don’t make it to the top of the success ladder.
Romney later said that his point was “not elegantly stated,” but he’s being modest: It was a perfectly elegant summary of the views of a cartoon conservative, which is what Romney took his audience to be full of.
In terms of accuracy, the notion that almost half of all citizens love big government and don’t mind higher taxes because they don’t pay taxes is both laughably false and truer than Romney would dare admit. False, in that (just for example) this 47% figure is only the income tax. It doesn’t include taxes for Social Security and Medicare, which are paid by anyone who makes a dollar in wages but partly disappear on wage incomes over $110,000 and don’t apply at all to income on capital (dividends, interest, capital gains, profits from private equity, money stashed on Caribbean islands and so on).
Regarding peoples’ attitudes about all this, Romney if anything understates the case. The percentage of Americans who feel like victims, entitled to every penny of their government benefit checks, approaches 100% — and includes most of Romney’s own supporters. Americans have a demonstrated capacity for feeling victimized, whether or not there is any basis for it.
Trouble is, if Romney were to tell his audiences, “You are the problem — you, the middle-class taxpayer; programs for the poor are not the problem,” he would win the pundit primary but lose the election for sure. Instead, if Romney himself is to be believed (always a good question), he has written off 47% of the electorate as lazy bums.
Romney is a wannabe demagogue. The basic technique of the demagogue is to blame the nation’s problems on some great “other,” a subset of the population that is causing all the trouble. Defining that other to include 47% of the country’s population, and hoping to cobble together a majority from the remaining 53%, is creative if nothing else.
While Romney is reinventing himself as a cartoon conservative, President Obama seems to be turning into a cartoon liberal. He also has his great “other": “fat-cat bankers on Wall Street,” as he once elegantly summarized it. Why must Obama vilify people to reform the institutions where they work? This rhetorical habit tends to confirm cartoon conservatives in their (erroneous, I hope) belief that regulations and taxes are weapons intended to punish some people, rather than necessary tools of government, wielded for the public good with no vindictive intent.
As others have noted, this year’s Obama is very different from the one we met in the 2008 campaign. This year’s Obama criticizes outsourcing as if it is always wrong to move a job overseas. Is it wrong for other countries to allow their companies to outsource work to the U.S.?
For this year’s Obama, the problem with Bain Capital is simply that it exists. All bankers are scum. Why? Because they are bankers.
But the worst are insurance companies. “No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies,” Obama declared in his acceptance speech this month. Also at the Democratic convention was a parade of insurance company victims, describing their desperate situations and the callousness of their insurance providers in refusing to cover preexisting conditions, or for enforcing lifetime maximum rules, until “Obamacare” came along to save the day.
I support Obamacare. It will be the president’s greatest legacy, and the Republicans who built their 2012 campaign around repealing it are going to look like idiots. But insurance companies are not evil. They are playing the game by the current rules. They have no other choice. They can eliminate their lifetime ceilings only if their competitors are required to do the same. If they knowingly take on customers with expensive preexisting conditions, they won’t be in business very long unless the government helps in some way.
So we have two presidential candidates, both seemingly determined to pose as cartoon versions of themselves and their respective parties. Maybe Homer Simpson will emerge as an independent candidate.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.