President Obama during a campaign event in Roanoke, Va., where he delivered… (Susan Walsh / Associated…)
“You didn’t build that” stands a good chance of becoming one of the indelible, hot-button phrases of Campaign 2012. Mitt Romney and Republicans will use President Obama’s words to attack him as the business-unfriendly Bureaucrat in Chief. Democrats will defend the sentiment as common sense — suggesting only that no one who succeeds in business makes it entirely on their own.
Obama’s words about private enterprise resonate because they fit into perennial themes: the conservative notion that only unfettered individuals can build a rich and free society vs. the liberal idea that society (and sometimes government) creates the fertile ground for individual success.
The furious debate about the president’s remarks (rendered more completely below) evoke campaigns past, particularly a spat from the 1996 presidential race, in which conservatives attacked First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s admonition (and book of the same name) that “it takes a village.”
Clinton drew on traditions from Africa and other parts of the world that suggest a community should look out for its young people, helping bolster the primary caretaking by parents. The book (full title: “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us”) might have seemed common sense to some people, and sociologists at the time reported that the theme had its root in many cultures.
But for conservatives, the words tripped the collectivist command-and-control warning wire. At the 1996 GOP Convention in San Diego, Republican nominee Bob Dole roared his disapproval. "We are told that it takes a village, that is, a collective, and thus the state, to raise a child," Dole said. "And, with all due respect, I am here to tell you it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child."
Nearly a decade later, “It takes a village” had conservative Sen. Rick Santorum still fuming. His 2005 rebuttal book “It Takes a Family” suggested that the group metaphor shrouded bigger, more ominous liberal tendencies.
“Thanks to rogue decisions by liberal judges, liberal feminists and the other village elders have let the horses of No Fault-Freedom run wild and have boarded up the proverbial barn door to ensure that traditional morals are locked out,” Santorum wrote.
Obama has called the furor among conservatives “bogus,” saying he merely referred to the infrastructure that benefits anyone lucky enough to do business in the United States.
Obama’s more complete remarks from last week at Roanoke, Va.:
“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back," the president said. "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there.
"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen," he said. "The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."