Back in Iowa, New Gingrich and Mitt Romney were using a campaign style of positiveness, high-minded ideas, and reminding people that there is obviously something wrong with air, because Obama breathes air. Now we have reached Florida, and Romney and Gingrich realize that one of them could win the nomination, except the other guy is in the way. So now they are engaged in loudly slapping each other in public and calling each other “bitch”.
One approach that all politicians use (if they know what they’re doing) is to create a frame about the other side on a given issue. If it works, the person who creates the frame controls how most people will regard discussions about that issue. Ways of seeing things outside the frame become irrelevant.
By now most people know that Mitt Romney is richer than some countries, and we know that he definitely paid a smaller percentage in taxes than you did. Gingrich is trying to create a frame on this issue to put Romney at a disadvantage, making two points: (1) Romney did not honestly work for his money like a regular person, and thus he is not fit to be president based on morality; (2) Romney is so rich he cannot understand normal life, and thus he is not fit to be president based on understanding our lives. Those would be the logical ideas, when spelled out, but there is also an emotional component of “goddamn that rich guy”.
This attempt to frame Romney fits into the political mood of the moment (an effective rhetorical strategy) with the Occupy Wall Street movement and anger over our unfair economic system. Although anger over economic distortion partially motivates the Tea Party movement, such anger is much more associated with the left. In using that background to frame his attacks on Romney, Gingrich thus appears to be using a leftist point of view.
Gingrich has been attacked by many powerful conservative figures for trying to create a frame that they fear will then be used by the Obama campaign. They are probably right. Gingrich probably is laying the groundwork for Obama. The Washington Post wrote about these attacks on Gingrich under the headline “Republican establishment pulls together against Newt Gingrich”.
Let’s look at some specifics of this framing. One reason many Republicans are angry with Gingrich is that they accuse him of attacking capitalism, which is, of course, sacred. This stupid reaction takes the point of view that no criticism of capitalism is ever allowed (the way the Soviet Union used to look at criticism of communism). And why would you need to criticize what is absolutely perfect? So when Gingrich says, “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people manipulating the lives of thousands of other people, and walk off with the money, or is that in fact somehow a little bit of a flawed system?”
Whether true or not, Gingrich is trying to say that in Romney’s work with Bain, Romney did not use moral ways of making money, but that he crossed the line to abuse. The language Gingrich uses here is also intended to inflame emotions, phrases like “handful of rich people” (a small elite), “manipulating the lives” (trying to control us), and “walk off with the money” (the way we might describe successful criminals). The same quote goes on to reinforce the emotional language with the phrase “broken families and broken neighborhoods”. Look how terrible that Mitt Romney is!
In order for Gingrich’s framing to work, it has to be repeated over and over, to begin to seem like the only possible way to view the issue. As an example, even in a discussion of illegal immigrants, Gingrich criticized Romney’s approach by referring again to Romney’s wealth: “I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic, you know, $20 million a year income with no work to have some fantasy this far from reality.” Here Gingrich also makes the point that Romney acquired fantastic wealth with “no work”.
Mitt Romney is not just lying down and rolling over. He is responding, but unlike Newt Gingrich, who is shaping his rhetoric based on the mood of the country, Romney seems amazingly tone deaf to how people are feeling. According to Romney, all discussions of fairness are totally invalid and nothing more than envy. And envy, as we know, is a rather childish emotion. So if you criticize the idea that a CEO should be given enormous wealth when he leaves a company that he ran badly, you’re just being a child.
When asked by an interviewer whether questions about wealth and power are based only on envy, or whether there could be real questions of fairness, Romney responded, “You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare.” Here’s a man who earned 20 million dollars in one year, not by working but by investing, and who paid less than 15% in taxes, and he wants to dismiss the rest of us with that tired old phrase “class warfare”. When asked a second time by the interviewer whether all discussion about how wealth is distributed is nothing but envy, Romney said, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like.” Does that sentence sound like fine cigars would also be part of the setting? Did everyone in that room arrive by limousine?
Another sign that Romney has no clue about dissatisfaction in the country came when he released his tax forms and we learned that he only paid around 15%. He said then that his tax bill was “entirely legal and fair”. Of course it was legal. He’s not such a fool as to cheat on his taxes and then run for president. But his use of the word “fair” sounds like he is trying to support Newt Gingrich’s framing argument of the out-of-touch rich man. In order to help Gingrich out, Romney added that $374,000 he himself earned in speaking fees was “not very much”.
Mitt, are you really as obtuse as Gingrich makes you sound? And yet you want to be our president? As soon as Romney gets the nomination, Obama should send Gingrich a thank-you card.