Perhaps the most significant if unspoken argument for voters to settle on November sixth involves the bitter dispute over which candidate has lived the more virtuous, worthwhile, constructive life: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?
Democrats raise this question implicitly in their avalanche of attacks on the GOP nominee, portraying him as a greedy, callow, uncaring plutocrat who has taken hundreds of millions from the society at large while giving next to nothing in return. Vice President Biden tried to tie Romney’s policies to his questionable character in the contentious Vice Presidential debate while Paul Ryan defended his running mate by citing his prodigious charitable giving and explicitly assuring the audience that Mitt “is a good man.”
Angry ads from the Obama forces of course tell a very different story, touching on prodigious wealth mostly housed in Cayman Island investments, a 14 percent income tax rate, heartless plant closings, outsourcing, expensive hobbies (including a horse in the Olympics), and alleged contempt for the hard work and blighted hopes of the American middle class. Nearly all the nastiest criticisms and caricatures advance a single theme: that Romney has devoted his 65 years of life on earth to the selfish, soulless pursuit of money while using his privileged position to lord it over the less fortunate. In this version of the candidate’s biography he’s not only animated by bad ideas but is, in fact, a bad man—an avaricious avatar of insatiable greed.
The Republicans not only disagree with this dark view of their candidate but feel outraged and indignant over its demented devaluation of the very nature of private-sector success. To them, Mitt’s shockingly scandal-free record of business building and sage investment deserves admiration, not contempt. Conservatives believe that a capitalist with a golden touch like Romney’s ends up giving far more to his investors, his employees, and to the nation as a whole than he ever takes away from the system. Moreover, his tireless work for his church and his dedicated child-rearing (with five clean-cut sons and eighteen grandchildren so far) could serve as a model and inspiration for any American.
Concerning the incumbent president, on the other hand, many Republicans not only disapprove of his record in office but also feel profoundly suspicious of his upbringing, his core values and his path to power. Dinesh D’Souza’s unexpectedly popular (and hugely profitable) documentary film 2016: Obama’s America focuses on the president’s radical, bohemian parents, his own youthful indiscretions with drugs and counter-cultural politics, his leftist, anti-Zionist and black nationalist mentors, his work as an Alinsky-inspired community organizer, and his lack of private-sector experience. While Romney helped launch companies like Staples and Bright Horizons, Obama made his money by writing two navel-gazing, autobiographical bestsellers that promoted multicultural ideals and taught politically correct legal theories to malleable, elite students. To some Republican critics, Obama’s existence for 51 years has contributed nothing to the nation beyond his immediate family and the ever-expanding army of political operatives and courtiers who have devoted themselves to his career.
While liberals insist that Romney feels only contempt for most Americans, conservatives insist that Obama feels only contempt for America itself. While the right honors Romney for creating wealth, the left admires Obama for his efforts to share it more equitably.
The nation remains divided, in other words, not merely over which candidate counts as more qualified for the nation’s highest office, but over which contender is worthy and which one is, in the deepest sense, worthless.
This represents a level of vitriolic polarization unthinkable even four years ago. Then, virtually all liberals (very much including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) expressed their admiration for John McCain and his heroic years of military service and often bi-partisan leadership in the Senate. At the same time, even the most conservative Republicans acknowledged Barack Obama’s oratorical gifts, beautiful family and historic achievements as the first non-white politician to conduct a serious campaign for the White House.
In a sense, however, the shattering economic crisis of the last four years combined with Romney’s unique background as a presidential aspirant, jointly shaping the poisonously personal nature of our present divisions.
Not since the Great Depression has the key issue dividing the two parties turned on the viability of the free market itself and the utility of governmental activism and intervention. The post-FDR consensus on a mixed economic system (vigorous emphasis on the profit motive, but with extensive governmental supervision and generous support for the unfortunate) has collapsed along with confidence in a normal process of recovery. Liberals surveyed the wreckage of 2008 and decided that the economy could never heal without governmental intervention while conservatives view the broken promises of the last four years and conclude that we can’t recover with it.
Meanwhile, no prior president has ever devoted so little of his life to what liberals euphemistically call “public service” as has Mitt Romney. Barack Obama spent 12 years in elective office before he won the White House; Romney served only a single four-year term as Governor of Massachusetts. It’s true that triumphant generals like Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. Grant and Zachary Taylor have won the presidency in their first tries for elective office but their long careers in the United States military definitely gave them extensive public sector (even federal employee) experience.
The plausibility of Romney’s candidacy, on the other hand, depends entirely on the view that running businesses and creating wealth amount to a valid form of public service, enriching society more than exploiting it. All conservatives feel comfortable with this notion but most liberals do not – hence the radically different views of Mitt’s presidential pursuit.
Democrats loathe Romney in no small part because he has given his life to institutions—the for-profit business world, the Mormon Church, and a deeply traditional, patriarchal version of the American family—that the left views as outmoded, suspect, distasteful and destructive.
By the same token, Republicans despise Obama because he has solely attached himself to endeavors—community organizing, Ivy League academia, and corrupt political machines in Illinois and Washington—that the right considers self-indulgent, unproductive and even un-American.
The impasse will find its ultimate resolution at the ballot box but there Romney should enjoy an obvious advantage: polling shows most people expressing their consistent preference for private sector businesses and charities over governmental initiatives and political activism. Some left-leaning true believers may express admiration for community organizers and lawyerly intellectuals but prosperous, honorable titans of industry (and even finance) still earn far more broad-based respect. And while the prolific Romneys hardly count as a typical suburban family—after all, their Thanksgiving Table would need to seat thirty just to accommodate sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, plus Mitt and Ann—most people continue to look up to the old-fashioned Norman Rockwell ideal.
Democrats may feel the need to assail the Romney biography out of a sense of passionate conviction and deep disgust but Republicans ought to welcome this debate as a matter of strategy. Romney and his operatives should frame the contest as a choice between Mr. Fixit and the ivory-tower ideologue, between a private-sector job creator and a bureaucratic regulator, between the Father-Knows-Best world of clear-cut expectations and the Post Modern confusion of multi-cultural relativism. Romney’s squareness, neighborly conventionality and gosh-and-golly goofiness might make liberals wince, but should serve to help conservatives win.
Editors’ note: This column originally appeared in the Daily Beast.