The Washington Post

What Romney’s `Harvard’ attack on Obama really means

As you’ve probably heard, Mitt Romney poked fun at President Obama today over his time in the Ivy League. “We have a president, who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard,” Romney said.

Romney, apparently, hopes to paint Obama as the one who’s really elitist and out of touch. Yesterday he said Obama has spent too much time on Air Force One. Today’s barb is cut from the same cookie-cutter.

Of course, using Harvard as an example of this seems questionable. As a number of people were quick to point out, Romney himself spent some time at Harvard, too — in fact, he earned two advanced degrees there.

Dems have painted this today as another “gaffe.” But there’s another layer to it that’s worth unpacking, one that might have more long-term significance than you might expect.

The problem with Romney’s Harvard attack isn't that it makes him look foolish. Rather, the real problem is that it serves as a reminder of the contrast between the two men’s story arcs. It draws attention to something that one assumes most voters would see as a positive: That Obama, like Romney, made it to Harvard, despite growing up in more difficult circumstances than Romney did.

This isn't to argue that Romney’s ascension to Harvard is necessarily less of an accomplishment. Rather, the point is that it just looks weird for someone of Romney’s pedigree to be poking fun at someone like Obama over his attainment of that level of academic success. I get the whole point of the “Obama as elitist” line, but is Romney really the right messenger for it?

The contrast in the two men’s story arcs is going to figure in the campaign more prominently than you might think. One of Romney’s main arguments will be that we should unshackle the free market in order to promote opportunity, rather than trying to bring about government-enforced “equal outcomes,” as Obama is allegedly trying to do. Romney cites his own success as an example of the opportunities the private sector can confer on people if only we allow it to. Obama will counter that government needs to play a larger role in facilitating opportunity, via more investment in education, financial aid, and so forth. And he, too, has cited himself as proof that this sort of assistance can expand opportunities for people in similarly modest circumstances.

If Dems have their way, the argument over which man is better positioned to expand opportunities for poor and lower middle class Americans will be seen by voters through the prism of these competing story arcs. Today’s exchange over Harvard may seem like light fare, but it foreshadows a contrast between the two men that could prove a far more important storyline than it seems right now.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.


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