Greg Sargent may have already beaten me to this point, but there is a very clear and very wrong mischaracterization going on in the discourse by campaigns over the “appropriate” role of government. Sargent calls it the “core distortion” at the center of the Romney campaign, and I can’t disagree with him.
Well, this is certainly finding an opening where you can get it. The Romney-Ryan campaign quite correctly, I think, has seen that while there were certainly problems with how Romney spoke to his donors about the 47 percent, the terrain on which he now finds himself is exceptionally favorable: Are you better off with Obama’s government-centric approach or will you do better under an opportunity society?
Why must there be such a definitive and stark contrast between approaches of the two candidates? As far as I know, Mitt Romney is supportive of many government programs which help provide opportunities for individuals and business to succeed. And, as far as I know, there is no indication that President Obama’s intent is to make all aspects of the economy government-dependent.
The answer is that in reality, these two notions are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have a nation, like we do currently, in which opportunity and government action co-exist. Government can help to provide opportunity through education, infrastructure development, and safety net programs to ensure that in times of economic hardship families can stay afloat. At the same time, the United States continues to be a land of opportunity, and both candidates have upheld the ideal that private business is the primary engine of growth in the economy.
Why pose the question that voters must choose between an “opportunity society” and a “government-centric society,” when the reality is we have, and will continue to have regardless of the November outcome, a combination of the two? This faulty black-and-white formulation is an inaccurate representation of the current and (at least immediate) future role of government in the US. While I understand the desire for a campaign to adopt some broad, philosophical theme to appeal to voters, where the candidates (on both sides) should be focusing their attention is on the actual policies over which their views contrast (even those in reference to the specific role of government) – not broad generalizations aimed at getting folks riled up.
EDIT: I wanted to add to this idea of a lack of mutual exclusivity by linking to this article which provides a few personal stories from individuals who, by all accounts, seem to be hard-working individuals who have received government benefits at some point in their lives. In the form of loans for education or social security and disability insurance, these individuals were able to continue to survive, and are now on their feet and paying their fair share of taxes while living a productive life. For them, and many others, the government has helped to provide opportunity for success. And even through a period of not paying income tax, they have reached a level of personal prosperity such that they are capable of paying income tax again. It is possible to have a role for government which supports the ideal of opportunity and personal success in the United States.