By Ken Feltman
President Obama’s comment in 2008 about small-town voters clinging to their guns and religion became a flash point for many everyday Americans. Remember Joe the Plumber? Rank-and-file Americans understood that Obama did not respect them or their values. Mitt Romney’s recent comment that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and, therefore, inclined to support Obama, ignited the same sort of firestorm. Millions of voters realized that Romney did not understand them or their situation.
The two statements have three things in common: (1) Both were delivered to wealthy financial supporters during fundraising events; (2) Both were well received by the people who heard the original statements; and (3) both were factually wrong.
When addressing well-heeled and friendly crowds, Romney is much more detailed about his plans if elected than when campaigning out among “ordinary” people. He fleshes out possible programs and tells which current government departments and agencies he would eliminate, reform or merge. (He has started to get more specific at regular campaign events since the 47% remark.) Obama continues to be much more candid when speaking privately with committed campaign contributors than when speaking to regular voters.
Obama and Romney seem to share the confident wonkiness that prevails throughout much of government. Underscoring this is a National Journal survey of political insiders which reveals that nearly six of ten political leaders and policy functionaries believe that rank-and-file citizens do not know enough to have meaningful opinions on important issues. What the voters perceive as condescension and arrogance, the leaders see as their wisdom versus the people’s ignorance. The wonkiness has become elitism.
Four years ago, comments made by Obama to private groups revealed much more about his style and eventual governing philosophy than his general campaign statements. Is the same true of Romney? Are his private comments indicative of how he would govern if elected?
People all across the country know that the two political parties in Washington share many attitudes. The tea parties and Ron Paul tapped into that knowledge. They capitalized on the alienation and ambivalence that many Americans feel toward Washington. If Obama is reelected, his governing style will not change. Romney’s 47% comment suggests that he would have a similar governing style. But more and more ordinary people are rejecting that style.
They reject what they sense is the underlying attitude among political elites – that the elites know more and, therefore, know best. Perhaps this means that the tea parties will find a lot more work to do. Perhaps they are just beginning to remake American politics.
(To be published in Politico.com on September 29, 2012)