Rhetorical "Opportunity" Meets Reality

            Leading GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has lately settled on a standard stump speech that first cites the Declaration of Independence’s “Pursuit of Happiness” clause and then moves on to suggest that President Barack Obama wants to see “fundamental” change in what Romney contends that famous phrase implies. As the candidate said dramatically in Muscatine, Iowa last week, the President wants to move the United States toward an “entitlement society,” while he, Romney, wishes to maintain it as an “opportunity” society. The first orientation, the former governor argued, breeds complacency and an enervation of initiative and undoes the American Dream by making government the overseer of and provider for all. As one might expect with this sort of rhetorical artifice, however, Romney contends his option will prevent government from adopting the overweening role he suggests President Obama wishes for it, while also allowing Americans the chance to gain education, work hard and otherwise pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps to grasp those opportunities to which, he avers, the Declaration implicitly pointed.

            All well and good, one might say, as an expression of his view. But on reflection, it is by no means as clear as Romney’s rhetorical sleight of hand suggests that President Obama desires to stymie “opportunity,” or that simply curtailing government’s role in society will ensure Americans the capacities to pursue the “opportunities” to which the candidate points. The former governor’s current framing of his position is neither fair to the President’s more complicated stance (whatever one makes of its merits), nor clear about how Romney would ensure that opportunity does not simply become the province of those Americans already well positioned by dint of family background, economic standing, or even geography, to pursue education and otherwise to position themselves to succeed.

            Indeed, what is most interesting about this sort of rhetoric is what it does not say. It does not suggest how Americans of all economic classes and backgrounds and races can best be positioned to obtain the opportunities to which Romney points, which, it is well established, are not now evenly distributed, nor what roles government can or should play in securing such a result. In lieu of a legitimate debate over what public institutions might do to assist specific populations in securing the “opportunity” to which Romney harks, he instead offers a sweeping assertion that the President simply wants to prevent such a possibility. However artful this claim as an appeal to ideologues who wish to hear that government is the overarching problem in American society, it does nothing to clarify the hard choices the nation now confronts, or to assure that Americans of all classes, races and economic status can gain the capacities necessary to succeed in today’s marketplace. One may hope that Romney and other possible GOP presidential nominees will do better when they are beyond the vagaries of seeking to appeal to the party’s now deeply conservative base in the caucus and primary season. Nonetheless, one might also see this sort of rhetoric as a symptom of a deeper democratic problem of a too great willingness among citizens and would-be leaders alike to find a scapegoat to blame for the nation’s challenges and to pretend that a still deeper individualism will somehow magically address them. A great deal of evidence suggests such is simply not the case, and shrilly claiming otherwise will do little to help a larger share of Americans grasp the “opportunity” to which Romney so proudly points.