Romney and Obama’s Cartoon Campaigns

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 Rand imitation in remarks at a private
fundraiser in May, caught on video and posted on the Web by
Mother Jones, is pitch-perfect. Romney observes that 47 percent
of Americans don’t pay taxes and yet feel that they are victims,
entitled to have all their basic needs — housing, food, health
care — 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 percent 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 disappears on wage
incomes more than $110,000 and doesn’t apply at all to income on
capital (dividends, interest, capital gains, profits from
private equity, money stashed on Caribbean islands, and so on).

Wannabe Demagogue

Regarding people’s attitudes about all this, Romney if
anything understates the case. The percentage of Americans who
feel like victims, entitled to every penny of their benefit
checks from the government, approaches 100 percent — and
includes most of Romney’s supporters. Americans have a
demonstrated capacity
for feeling victimized, whether there is
any basis for it or not.

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 percent
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 percent of the country’s
population, and hoping to cobble together a majority from the
remaining 53 percent, is creative, if nothing else.

While Romney is reinventing himself as a cartoon
conservative, President Barack 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 in order 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
individuals or groups of people, rather than necessary tools of
government, wielded for the public good with no vindictive
intent.

As others have pointed out, this year’s Obama is very
different from the Obama we met in the 2008 election 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.

Unjustified Scapegoats

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 nomination acceptance speech
last 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 pre-existing 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
pre-existing 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

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.