The battle over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech was central to the 2012 election, embodying a larger clash of ideas between Obama and Mitt Romney over the proper role of government in facilitating economic growth and over the true nature of individual achievement. Whether or not this particular argument was decisive, Obama won the election by a solid margin, suggesting Romney’s attack — that it showed Obama is hostile to private sector innovation and success — didn’t really carry much weight.
Now a new form of this argument has made a comeback — in the Massachusetts Senate race. It all started with this new ad from longtime Democratic Congressman Ed Markey, in which he touts his work passing a bill overhauling federal tele-communications laws, which a Boston Globe editorial credited with “the creation of millions of jobs — including many in Massachusetts.” Here’s the spot:
The NRSC’s response rekindles the “you didn’t build that” argument:
Bay Staters know that entrepreneurs, small business people, and workers are responsible for innovation not only in Massachusetts, but across America. Trying to take credit for the innovation, investment, and jobs created by these businesses reveal just how out-of-touch — if not desperate — Ed Markey is. Gabriel Gomez is a different kind of candidate, one who understands that opportunity and hard work creates success in Massachusetts, not Washington politicians.
NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring subsequently tweeted:
“You didn’t build that” — Ed Markey style.
The Markey ad is in part a response to one of the main GOP attack lines: That Markey is a longtime Washington politician who doesn’t have the energy and outsider perspective that former Navy SEAL and businessman Gabriel Gomez has. The ad shows Markey hailing private sector innovation and creativity as a major jobs engine in Massachusetts. Indeed, perhaps this ad shows Markey believes he is vulnerable to this line of attack; time will tell whether he is or not.
But it’s worth noting that “you didn’t build that” has a history in Massachusetts. Last year, Elizabeth Warren emerged as by far the most prominent national spokesperson for the “you didn’t build that” argument — or YDBT for short. Remember that mad viral video in which she made a case for higher taxes on the rich based explicitly on the argument that the wealthy were not solely responsible for their own achievements, and that they owed a partial debt to “the rest of us,” who helped build the infrastructure and broader society that helped enable their success? Republicans aggressively attacked Warren over YDBT in every conceivable forum, suggesting they revealed her socialist leanings, but she won her race by eight points.
Meanwhile, the Warren video was widely debated nationally for months. It even framed the YDBT argument in the presidential race, which Obama, of course, also won.
Now, perhaps Markey won’t prove as strong a communicator as Warren turned out to be. Warren had an outsider status that Markey lacks, which is why Republicans believe this argument may be more potent against him than it was against her. But this has the feel of a rerun. Republicans are again betting that someone with a successful business record can defeat a Democrat who believes government has a key role to play in facilitating economic development by casting that belief as evidence of hostility to individual initiative, hard work, and achievement.
UPDATE: In fairness, NRSC spokesman Dayspring’s “you didn’t build that” tweet was actually sharing a link to someone else, blogger Dan Riehl, comparing Markey’s ad to the “you didn’t build that” speech.