The media take on this has generally been that it was a gaffe by Romney, and that Democrats went after it was just tit for tat for the Republicans smearing the President. But in reality, Romney's comments provide a window into conservative thinking, and unwittingly, does liberals a favor, if we can take advantage of it.
I am not talking about political or electoral advantage here. I'm talking about an opportunity to redefine the terms of the national debate on the role of government. For 35 years, conservatives have framed government as an inefficient bureaucracy that stand primarily to hinder the economic freedoms of individuals. Sure, they have done so in order to protect corporate special interests from public interest oversight, but they have rather successfully villainized the government nonetheless.
In countering that argument, liberals have pointed to government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits and on occasion, the military. But thus far, conservatives have been winning the larger argument on "cutting government" while liberals have only succeeded in beating back specific challenges to programs like Social Security, for example. Despite our best efforts, and despite the abundance of evidence, the public lexicon has yet to connect the concept of government with essential public services performed by government at the federal, local and state levels.
That is partly because even the most cynical independent has a hard time imagining that either of the parties is against essential public services like community policing, firefighting, teaching, street cleaning and filling the potholes. One has a hard time imagining that a given political party, when push comes to shove, would turn off the street lights.
What we have had a hard time doing as liberals is connecting in the public mind the public services that most everyone takes for granted - that when your child is of school age, there will be a public school for her, that if your house catches on fire, the fire department will show up, that if your home is broken into, the police will show up when you call 911 - with government. Although at a cerebral level, everyone knows that those are government services, most people do not think of them when they think about 'government.'
This is where Mitt Romney's comments come in. What the media has termed a 'gafee' was nothing more than Romney giving voice to the conservative philosophy of governing. What everyone seems to miss is that in that philosophy, Romney had his facts right: teachers, firefighters and police officers are government employees, and the Republican vision of 'cutting government' relies almost entirely on eliminating the jobs of those people, and by extension, by reducing the services teachers, firefighters and police officers offer to our communities and our children. What Mitt Romney revealed out in the open was the truth that major cuts in "government" at the state and local levels are in fact synonymous with fundamentally altering the concept of the public good.
Now that the Republican nominee has made the connection between these critical public services and government, liberals don't have to. It seems that if there could be some fair and dispassionate deciphering of Romney's comments, we can in fact arrive at the great debate we have been waiting for between liberal and conservative philosophies of government - based on facts both sides agree on (that structural major cuts in government is fundamentally gutting essential public services), rather than manufactured realities by ideologues. Now, we can have a debate about whether or not it is the government's role at all to provide these services as public services to all or whether the private sector, with a profit motive, should provide them to those who can afford to pay.
That is a legitimate debate. It just so happens that it is also the essential debate we are going to have this election season. But the quintessential debate is bigger than this election, and will continue beyond it. That's the debate we need to win. In order to win it, we need to connect the critical public services people use everyday with the concept of government, and thereby expose a more truthful picture of government for the public mind. That the assistance in so doing comes directly from Mitt Romney in the form of an admission is most welcome.