Hendrik Hertzberg is obviously right that the Republicans' Tuesday convention theme, "We Built That," was based on a grossly deceptive edit of Barack Obama's July speech at a firehouse in Virginia. Say what you will about the president, but the idea that he would tell entrepreneurs that they didn't build their businesses is ridiculous. It would be evidence of dementia, like standing in the rain and saying it's not raining. Obama was making a point about how society trains, encourages, and often subsidizes job creators. That "unbelievable American system," he said, in a rousing tribute to American exceptionalism, "you didn't build that."
You could say the comment resonates because people have a gut feeling, thanks to lackluster job and GDP growth, that Obama doesn't understand how the economy works -- but the comment doesn't resonate unless you change it.
You could say, as Andrew Sullivan has, that Obama deserves the drubbing because he spoke carelessly -- but if it was really that bad, then the mendacious edits wouldn't be necessary. Real gaffes, such as Richard Nixon saying he wasn't a crook or Gerald Ford that Poland wasn't under Soviet domination, don't require deliberate erasures.
You could say that Obama was giving too much weight to communitarianism. Free education, tax breaks, and infrastructure won't create a job unless an individual or group of individuals adds vision and energy and risks capital. It did sound like Obama was scolding entrepreneurs for thinking they're all that, which seems churlish when we've got 20 million out of work. Give us 5% growth, and keep your discourses on political philosophy to yourself.
But that's not what Republicans said all day yesterday. They said, falsely, that Obama told business builders they didn't build anything. Their visceral, uncontainable contempt for Obama simmered behind the sentimental faux documentaries. Besides, they know that their base constituency will believe anything -- he was born in Kenya, he's a socialist, he wants to tear down and diminish the United States, he believes only government can create jobs. I'll leave out of the equation whether it's harmful to the country to alter a president's public policy comments and pummel him for what he didn't say as a means of seizing power. I imagine it's been done before, though an example doesn't spring to mind. I'll even leave aside that the U.S. would probably be better off if many Republicans hadn't given in to these passions in the first months of his presidency and dedicated themselves to defeating rather than working with him. I just keep remembering Karl Rove telling Republicans to treat Obama with respect since they can't win without millions of his 2008 voters. I wonder how these tactics are playing with them?