Victims or Victors?: The Choice in November

Carol Platt Liebau

9/20/2010 12:00:34 AM - Carol Platt Liebau

Left with no other plays in his book, President Obama has taken to personal attacks – seeking to tar as an elitist Republican Congressman John Boehner, who stands to become the Speaker of the House if Republicans succeed in winning a majority in November. The presidential attacks are likely to sabotage any chance of bipartisan cooperation between the President and a Speaker Boehner; certainly, they’re a sad come-down from the lofty rhetoric of a man who once argued that there’s “no Red America, no Blue America – there is the United States of America.”

Above all, they may backfire politically on the president. To the extent that Obama attacks Boehner’s background, he creates an opportunity both for the potential Speaker-in-Waiting to acquaint Americans with a very compelling life story – and for the Republican Party to highlight the difference between their perspective on America and that of the Democrats.

In contrast to the President, Boehner didn’t attend an elite prep school or an Ivy League college and law school. In fact, he was the first one in his family to earn a college degree, and worked as he did so in order to pay his tuition. Born in Carthage, Ohio, one of 12 children, Boehner’s father and uncle owned a small restaurant and bar that catered to blue collar workers, and his first job was as a janitor. He went on to become president of a plastics and packaging company before entering local politics. Two of his siblings currently are unemployed, and most of the others work blue-collar jobs.

One needn’t be a particular fan of John Boehner’s to respect what he’s accomplished. There’s no denying that he has lived the American Dream, enjoying enormous social mobility resulting from tenacity and hard work, coupled with a little luck along the way. Boehner was born into near-poverty, in a region that’s known more than its share of economic hardship – and yet, it seems he’s never regarded himself as a victim. Instead, he’s been a victor over life circumstances that certainly offered him an excuse for complaint and low achievement.

So has Marco Rubio, the GOP candidate for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat. His parents fled Castro’s Cuba; Rubio grew up primarily in Las Vegas, where his father worked as a bartender and his mother as a hotel housekeeper (and later, a K-Mart stock clerk). Rubio graduated from law school and worked as a sole practitioner before rising to become Majority Whip, Majority Leader and Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, and wresting the Senate nomination from sitting Florida Governor Charlie Crist.

Democrats insist that Latinos don’t receive a fair shake in America – that they’re the victims of anti-immigration bigots in the GOP. In a recent address at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's awards dinner, the President himself charged that Republicans are the ones “standing against you.” But Rubio’s life story is evidence that the American Dream is there for the taking, regardless of one’s race, ethnicity or economic background.

So is Damon Dunn’s. The Republican candidate for California Secretary of State, Dunn is an African-American who was born in dire poverty to a 16-year-old single mother, and who lived in a three-bedroom trailer with ten other people. He grew up to win a football scholarship to Stanford University, played in the NFL, then co-founded a successful real estate firm – all while also serving in a variety of impressive volunteer capacities and as a licensed Baptist minister.

The lives of Damon Dunn, Marco Rubio and John Boehner are emblematic of the qualities cherished by the Republican Party. At its best, the GOP strives to create and maintain the conditions under which the American Dream can thrive – enabling individuals of talent, merit and diligence to triumph over their circumstances and rise in the world, whatever their origins. In contrast, the Democrats see a nation of helpless, hapless victims who need an all-powerful, all-controlling government to combat the intractable systemic injustices visited upon them by a “downright mean” country (as Michelle Obama once characterized it).

As much as November’s elections are about policies and politics, they are about the parties’ competing visions of America. Will voters agree with President Obama and the Democrats that America is a nation of pitiful victims – or will they stand with the likes of Marco Rubio, Damon Dunn and John Boehner, who prove that when the government is confined to its proper role, there is no limit to the victories that regular people can achieve in The United States of America?