In our opinion: Stop misrepresenting positions to score cheap political points

Published: Saturday, July 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama gestures during a campaign stop at Green Run High School in Virginia Beach, Va., Friday, July 13, 2012. Dueling political ads emerged this week, as the Romney camp tries to pounce on President Obama's "you didn't build that" comment

Steve Helber, Associated Press

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Last month, MSNBC drew fire from critics for broadcasting a clip from one of Mitt Romney's stump speeches in an attempt to make him look out of touch with the average voter. In the segment that aired, Romney described the remarkable computerized ordering system at a Pennsylvania deli. "You touch this, touch this, touch this, go pay the cashier, and there's your sandwich," the candidate said. "It's amazing!"

Then the MSNBC anchors chortled heartily and called this Romney's "supermarket scanner moment," referencing the first President Bush's unfamiliarity with standard grocery store technology.

The problem, as anyone who had seen the full speech online was able to recognize, was that Romney told this story to illustrate the contrast between government bureaucracy and private sector initiative. What was "amazing" was not just the cool sandwich ordering thing, but the fact that, in Romney's words, "people in the private sector learn how to compete."

That's not quite as goofy as it first appeared.

MSNBC later aired the full quote, but they didn't bother to apologize for their slanted attempt to make the presumptive GOP nominee look foolish.

This month, it's time for President Obama's critics to apologize.

The president is being hammered from all sides for his recent claim that "if you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Radio personality Rush Limbaugh claimed these words show that the president "hates this country" and is trying "to dismantle the American dream." Romney himself has gotten in on the action, excoriating the president for supposedly claiming that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple Computer; Henry Ford didn't build Ford Motor Company, and Papa John didn't build Papa John's Pizza.

The president's statement has provided plentiful rhetorical fodder for the GOP, but nobody seems to notice that the supposedly business-hating interpretation of the president's words rests on the wrong pronoun antecedent. When the president said, "if you've got a business, you didn't build that," the that he was referring to was not the business you've got. It was the all things he'd mentioned in his previous sentences.

Here's the whole quote, in context.

"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 [i.e the roads, bridges, and unbelievable American system.] Somebody else made that happen."

It's pretty clear in the broader context that's the president's not claiming to have built Papa John's Pizza.

In our electoral system, it's entirely appropriate for political partisans to take issue with the positions of the other guy. What's not appropriate is to misrepresent an opponent's positions in order to score cheap political points.

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