High on the long list of things Republicans decided not to change after the 2012 election—below opposition to immigration reform, but above the belief that Democrats only win elections by showering the poor with generous welfare benefits—is an abiding faith that the fundamental unit of politics is the decontextualized “gaffe.”
As a demonstration of that faith, Republicans are leaning heavily into 15 words Hillary Clinton uttered late last week while stumping for Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race.
“Don't let anybody tell you that, you know, it's corporations and businesses that create jobs.” Throw in the context and it’s clear that Clinton was reciting a standard Democratic denunciation of the view that liberating the wealthy from taxes and regulations is the key to economic growth. "You know, that old theory, trickle-down economics,” she added. “That has been tried. That has failed. That has failed rather spectacularly.”
But shear off the surrounding language and you’re left with a game-changing soundbite that will propel a Republican into the White House two years from now.
I think the opposite is true. Republicans are no less obsessed with gaffes today than they were in October 2012. Just last week, Republicans were riding high on President Obama’s gaffetastic observation that Democrats in the Senate vote with him most of the time, and before that, his admission that the policies he supports are on the ballot in November. But what makes their obsession with this gaffe particularly revealing is that it’s substantively identical to a gaffe they seized upon two years ago, weeks before they went on to lose the election—to their great astonishment—by a pretty wide margin.
In 2012, Republicans made “you didn’t build that”—a decontextualized comment Obama made about the fact that the wealthy depend on and must contribute to the public space—the unifying theme of their party convention in Tampa, Florida. They were certain that it would cause, or at least contribute, to Obama’s demise. But in hindsight, many conservatives acknowledged that the GOP’s obsession with that gaffe revealed more damaging truths about the Republican Party than the gaffe itself revealed about Obama.
“One after another, [Republican businessowners] talked about the business they had built. But not a single—not a single—factory worker went out there,” Rick Santorum told activists at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference last year. “Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company too! And we should have had them on that stage.”
After the election, conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru lamented that “the Republican story about how societies prosper—not just the Romney story—dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell aped this analysis when he admitted in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that Republicans "have often lost sight of the fact that our average voter is not John Galt."
None of the Republicans pushing the “corporations and businesses” line actually thinks Hillary Clinton meant to say that investment isn’t a component of economic growth, just as they know from their perches in congressional offices and at donor-dependent non-profits that the entrepreneur isn’t the solitary engine of job creation.
But it’s clear they all still believe that riling up business elites by selectively quoting Democrats is a key to political success. The fixation on this gaffe foreshadows another Republican presidential campaign centered on the preeminence of the entrepreneur, to the exclusion of the wage worker and the trade unionist and the jobless. It suggests an unwavering faith that a majority of voters will hear Hillary say “don’t let anybody tell you that … it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs,” and support the other guy. They haven’t considered the possibility that voters will instead hear those same words and think she makes a decent point.