COLUMN: Context, syntax, spin – and common sense

  • Posted: Friday, October 5, 2012 7:20 a.m.

The presidential election is right around the corner, and with it intensifying attention – and fierce debate - on the candidates’ every word.

Two prime examples are Romney’s infamous “47 percent” and the equally notorious Obama “you didn’t build that.” Both have been used by the candidates as damning evidence of their opponents dark, hidden convictions.

Let’s take a closer look.Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark was part of a July campaign speech in Roanoke, Va. It was instant red meat for Republicans, taken as validation of the president’s dismissive view of private enterprise and near-total misunderstanding of what makes our economy tick.

Obama supporters responded with sputtering outrage that the president’s words had been taken out of context.

The president himself, at the DNC convention, ruefully explained that he’d been unclear on “syntax” (at least we’re getting a grammar lesson here).

The context: in his lead-in to that phrase, Obama noted that he was struck by those who attribute their success to being “smarter” or “working harder” than others, rejecting both explanations on the basis that there are plenty of smart, hard-working people out there.

He then pointed out those factors – such as great teachers and the roads and bridges we drive on - that help each of us on our life’s journey, concluding that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that!

Someone else made that happen.”

The heart of the matter is what he meant by that’ The apologists roll their eyes and explain that the president surely was not disparaging the hard work of those who do in fact build their businesses – he was simply referring back to his earlier mention of teachers and roads and bridges that helped them along the way.

Their explanation may be the only game in town, but it is transparently lame. Obama’s words, all of them, in full context, speak for themselves.

To accept his explanation of unclear syntax is to believe that Obama got on Air Force One and flew to Roanoke to explain to the simpletons there that they didn’t build the roads and bridges they drive on to get to and from their businesses (successful or not).

To be fair, it is clear that Obama was not arguing that the hard work of business owners has no value.

He’s absolutely right - we all get help along the way.

But his syntax is quite clear – he said, and he meant, “you didn’t build that (business),” reflecting his personal view that the national economy is driven primarily by government action, not private enterprise.

This common sense interpretation of Obama’s words is wholly consistent with everything we’ve learned about him over the past four years. Wealth redistribution, stimulus and bailout, government-managed health care – all reflect his deep-seated convictions on the role of government.

That’s what this election is about.

By contrast, take Romney’s 47 percent, now a staple of countless ads and every Obama stump speech.

This was a snippet of Romney remarks at a May fundraiser, in a private home, taped secretly by none other James Earl Carter IV, grandson of the former president. (As an aside, I find it more than curious coincidence that this months-old tape surfaced magically just after the debacle in Libya, and for days pushed that very ugly story off the front pages.)

Romney’s been hammered by his words ever since. But context is important here also, and it’s illuminating.

Romney’s 47 percent remark was in response to a question about election strategy.

He answered, logically, that his message of lower income taxes would obviously not resonate with those American voters – the 47 percent – who don’t pay any income tax at all; and for that reason, his strategy must be “not to worry” about them and to seek other avenues of support.

Romney’s downfall was to characterize those 47 percent as “victims” – but if he’d used the term “dependents,” his context about the insidious danger of ever-increasing entitlements would have been more clear and less controversial.

And it is absurd for his opponents to assert that his “not to worry” words mean that he doesn’t care about the 47 percent – his entire crusade to rebuild the economy argues otherwise.

Rather, he is simply not counting on their votes.

A broader context of his comments – ignored by media and inadequately explained by Romney – is their linkage to the incessant Democrat drumbeat about “fair share” in taxation.

We can debate whether it’s fair (and to whom) for the top 20 percent of wage earners to pay 90 percent of the nation’s income taxes, which they do now – but I struggle with the concept that for nearly half (47 percent) of the citizens of this great country, their fare share is zero.

Again, that’s what this election is about.

Let’s skip the word games and stick to the real issues.

Jack DeVine is a retired business executive who lives in Aiken.

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