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Context be damned: Obama’s ‘It worked’ quote should work for Republicans

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Context is dead. Long live context.

For the second time in two weeks, Mitt Romney’s campaign has an out-of-context quote it can use to bludgeon President Obama. First it was “You didn’t build that,” and now it’s two ill-fated words that Obama spoke at a fundraiser Monday: “It worked.”

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As with “You didn’t build that,” the Romney campaign’s attacks on “It worked” will be criticized for being out-of-context, lowest-common-denominator politics. And as with “You didn’t build that,” “It worked” is going to ... well ... work.

Here’s why.

There’s a lot of controversy these days about campaign tactics and what crosses the line. Obama’s team has been crying foul for two weeks now that “You didn’t build that” has been taken badly out of context by Republicans.

The problem is, the gray area is just too gray. Fact-checkers are great (especially our Glenn Kessler), but as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game.

Romney’s team is exploiting that fact — to the credit of its political acumen, if not its strict adherence to accuracy.

But they’re not the only ones. The fact is that the Obama team’s hands aren’t quite clean when it comes to context, either, including its use of Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” and “I like being able to fire people” quotes.

In all of these cases, we’re dealing with a somewhat ambiguous quote.

In the case of “You didn’t build that,” it seems logical that Obama was referring to the fact that business owners didn’t build the roads and the bridges that he mentioned in the preceding sentence. But most GOP advertising on the issue has left viewers with the impression that he was referring to small-businesses owners who don’t deserve credit for building their own businesses.

Case in point:

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In the case of “It worked,” as Dave Weigel notes, it’s perhaps even clearer that the words are being taken out of context.

Here’s the money quote, used in the Romney Web video at the top of the post:

“Just like we’ve tried their plan, we tried our plan. And it worked.”

Romney’s video, of course, contrasts that comment with all the most dire evaluations of the country’s current economic state.

But the preceding sentences from Obama’s speech make it pretty clear that he was talking not about his own success in rallying the economy, but specifically about tax policy — not under himself, but under Bill Clinton:

“I’m also going to ask anybody making over $250,000 a year to go back to the tax rates they were paying under Bill Clinton, back when our economy created 23 million new jobs, the biggest budget surplus in history and everybody did well. Just like we’ve tried their plan, we tried our plan. And it worked.”

If you’re a Democrat, Romney’s ad will look wildly out of context and irresponsible.

But if you’re a Republican, you can make a credible case that the ad is completely justified.

It goes like this: Obama was contrasting two different tax policies — one being the Republican policy, and the other being the Democrats’ policy. Obama was talking about how the Democrats’ policy is better. But Democrats have been in the White House for four years now, and things are still bad. So obviously Democrats’ policies — on taxes or otherwise — aren’t that great.

If you’re predisposed against Romney, that sort of justification will seem ludicrous and make your skin crawl. But it paints just enough of a gray area over the whole matter to justify the attack.

Romney may be attacked in the days ahead for running an out-of-context campaign, and some objective reporters might even say it has gone too far.

But the fact is that these two comments further clarify a picture (or caricature, depending on where you stand) of Obama that’s already out there. And plenty of — nay, almost all — people who don’t dissect this stuff as much as we do are going to take the pulled quotes at face value.

Is it warm and fuzzy? No. Does it work? Yes. And that’s why they do it.

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