Day two of the Republican convention showed no sign of letting up on its “you didn’t build that” theme, though the formal premise of the night was a slight adjustment to it: the phrase “we can change it.” But in a somewhat surprising moment, Paul Ryan seemed to accept the Obama administration’s complaint that the quote was taken out of context. Ryan offered an alternative riff on the phrase, implicitly explaining to the president why the context doesn’t exonerate him.
The president and his allies say that in context, it’s clear the president meant that government deserves some, but not all, the credit for these businesses for maintaining American infrastructure. But the full context, as I have written before, doesn’t help the president much because of the way he seemed to be mocking those who were successful. In a derisive tone, Obama said: “I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.” So last night, Ryan said this:
Behind every small business, there’s a story worth knowing. All the corner shops in our towns and cities, the restaurants, cleaners, gyms, hair salons, hardware stores – these didn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of heart goes into each one. And if small businesspeople say they made it on their own, all they are saying is that nobody else worked seven days a week in their place. Nobody showed up in their place to open the door at five in the morning. Nobody did their thinking, and worrying, and sweating for them. After all that work, and in a bad economy, it sure doesn’t help to hear from their president that government gets the credit. What they deserve to hear is the truth: Yes, you did build that.
In other words: yes, Mr. President, sometimes people worked harder than their competitors, worked their fingers to the bone, so to speak, and realized their dream. They are not, Ryan said, trying to take full credit for it, but they were the ones who took the risk, went to sleep every night hoping to provide for their family in the morning, got up when it was still dark and went to sleep when it was dark again, to make it happen. They didn’t win the lottery, and they didn’t succeed because of handouts. They understand they got help along the way, but that help doesn’t diminish their effort and doesn’t deserve dismissive sneering from their president.
It was a much more mature and empathetic handling of the “you didn’t build that” line than any other mention of it thus far at the convention—and it’s been mentioned quite a lot. Projecting that maturity was certainly one of the goals for Ryan’s big introduction to the country. And demonstrating empathy was just as important, since the president and the media constantly seek to portray conservatives as heartless capitalists. But who understands the struggling business owner better, Obama or Ryan? Judging by their respective speeches, it’s Ryan by a mile.