I was on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today, and one of the segments led with a Mitt Romney campaign ad quoting President Obama's "you didn't build that" remarks. I remember thinking, as I heard the clip, that Obama's remarks sounded way worse than I'd recalled. Turns out there's a reason for that. As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports, Romney's team edited the president's remarks to make an entirely different, and much more offensive, point than the one Obama actually made.
If you listen to Romney's ad, you hear the president say this:
If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be 'cause I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something: If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
Here's what Obama actually said, with the omitted sentences in bold:
If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be ‘cause I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
So, in Romney's ad, "that" refers to "building a business." In Obama's remarks, "that" refers to the roads and bridges.
My point on "Morning Joe" was that the media has gotten into a pattern where we listen to presidential candidates say the same thing a dozen, a hundred, a thousand times, and then the one time they stumble over their words or phrase their point inartfully, we jump all over them. It has happened to both Romney and Obama during this cycle. Repeatedly.
What I didn't say, but perhaps should have, is that once we in the media deem something to be a "gaffe," the normal rules of journalism cease to apply, and we begin running and rerunning the attack ads that relate to the gaffe, and playing clips of surrogates mocking the gaffe, and so on.
All this is done, in part, to retroactively justify the coverage of the initial comment: "See, we told you this would be a big deal, and now it is a big deal." But that is, of course, self-fulfilling, as we have made it a big deal -- and have handed the opposing campaign a reason to make it a big deal -- by giving it wall-to-wall coverage. In doing, we create an incentive for both campaigns to engage in more of this kind of behavior, to make more of these kinds of ads. We are, in effect, encouraging a race to the bottom.
I don't get too exercised over this kind of thing, as my read of the evidence is that these gaffes -- and the coverage of them -- don't really matter. As Slate's Dave Weigel amusingly tweeted Wednesday, some of us are old enough to remember when Obama saying "the private sector is doing fine" was the gaffe that would change everything in this election. It didn't, of course. But even so, there's little reason for the media to spend so much time covering gaffes, and there's no reason for them to be complicit when one campaign wants to lie about the other campaign.
Conversely, it would be interesting to cover the questions that Romney and Obama are, in theory, arguing about: the degree to which publicly provided goods do or don't contribute to new business formation, and the level of public investment correlated with maximum firm formation. But replaying attack ads doesn't have much of a role in that.