On Wednesday evening, Paul Ryan shared with fellow Republicans and the rest of the country the story of his mother, “my role model.” The party’s vice presidential candidate spoke with understandable admiration about how she remade her life at 50, “when my dad died.” She started and succeeded in a small business.
What Ryan recalled was how she did it, in part, getting “on a bus every weekday for years,” riding “40 miles each morning to Madison” where “she earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business.” He deployed the story to set up a larger point, driving home a theme launched at the opening of the party convention, and sustained: “We Built It.” He explained that his mother differs little from the many small business owners who think, worry and sweat, who don’t deserve “to hear from their president that government gets the credit. … Yes, you did build that.”
Republicans have made much of the unpolished words delivered by President Obama in mid-July. “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that,” he told a Virginia audience. “Somebody else made that happen.” What did the president mean by “that”? Ryan and others have pressed the case that somehow the president was denigrating free enterprise or diminishing individual success or celebrating the genius of government.
Consider the president’s words in context. He made the obvious point that few succeed exclusively on their own. They get “some help” along the way, perhaps in the form of a “great teacher” or even a bit of good fortune. He pointed to the public investment in roads and bridges, routes on which commerce flows. He noted that government research established the Internet, triggering so many innovations and businesses.
This was the “that” he cited, “this unbelievable American system. … that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Return to Paul Ryan and his mother. In remaking her life, she traveled on public roads to a public university. Public transportation delivers many employees and students. She received survivor benefits from Social Security. Just about everyone grasps the indispensable ingredients of hard work, drive and ingenuity. What the president stressed, amid Republican calls for a much smaller government, is the contribution of the public sector.
This hardly is controversial — unless you are determined to see the president’s words as “a slap in the face to the American Dream,” as the Mitt Romney team charged in a recent fundraising pitch. A campaign should be waged vigorously, drawing sharp contrasts and comparisons. What shouldn’t be accepted is the alternate reality Republicans are attempting to build.