Convention speakers deny government role in business
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TAMPA, Fla. -- In their zeal to counter President Barack Obama's statement that businesspeople "didn't build that," Republicans at their convention this week are rushing so far in the other direction that they're all but denying any government role in American history.
The Republican National Convention spent part of Tuesday night blasting Mr. Obama's handling of the economy, using the president's line as a rallying cry while trumpeting the virtues of up-by-your-bootstraps American entrepreneurship.
The role of the federal government has become a flash point on the campaign trail. Mr. Obama and Democrats generally contend that government should lend a helping hand to businesses and individuals who might not otherwise make it.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his party maintain that Washington policy plays a limited role in entrepreneurial success, and is often more a hindrance than a help. In pushing that theme this week, though, some speakers have left out part of the story.
In a convention floor speech Tuesday night, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin boasted that people rushed into her state in the Great Land Run of 1889 with only their own grit, and no help from the federal government. "And in 1897, eight years after the land run, a handful of adventurous pioneers risked their own money -- not the federal government's money -- to drill Oklahoma's first oil well, the Nellie Johnstone," she told conventioneers.
But Ms. Fallin's characterization omitted major chunks of federal involvement, including the Dawes Act of 1887 and other measures that forced Indian tribes onto reservations, freeing "open" surplus lands for white settlers. Oil was found on some of that land. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided the method to distribute that land to settlers.
"Those pioneers who came to settle in Indian territory were benefited by federal government largess at every hand," said historian W. David Baird, dean emeritus of Pepperdine University's Seaver College. "The federal government ... surveyed the raw land into sections, ranges and townships, so that individual plots could be legally described. In 1889 and subsequently, the U.S. Army orchestrated the dramatic runs for 160-acre parcels of land or town lots, which were then registered with a U.S. government land office."
Ms. Fallin's characterization was intended to be a GOP rebuttal to Mr. Obama's view of how some businesses succeed. Mr. Romney's campaign and the party say the president said in a speech that owners of successful businesses "didn't build that."
Mr. Obama said in a July speech in Roanoke, Va., "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.
"Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have, that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that; somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet, so that all companies could make money off the Internet."
Mr. Obama's truncated remarks have become a rallying cry for Mr. Romney and other GOP candidates who disdain big government and embrace the American entrepreneurship up-by-your-bootstraps ideal.
"It's a great ideal, but it's not true," said Darrell West, the Brookings Institution's vice president and director of governance studies in Washington. "A lot of companies and businesses get help. Government builds the infrastructure; the government helps in about every sector."
Sher Valenzuela, a GOP candidate for Delaware lieutenant governor, joined conventioneers blasting the Obama remark.
She and her husband took their upholstery company, First State Manufacturing, from a kitchen table idea to a business with 70 employees and a 70,000-square-foot factory. "We defied the odds," she told conventioneers. "We rolled the dice on losing -- or gaining -- everything. We didn't listen to the experts. We grew our dream."
But she didn't mention that the federal government helped them achieve that dream through small-business loans and government contracts. According to The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., First State Manufacturing began with help from a $25,000 federal loan and "survives on government contracts."
The paper reported that the business financed its huge factory with a $301,000 loan backed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, part of Mr. Obama's federal stimulus bill. The company since 2001 has also received $15.2 million in federal government contracts, largely from the Defense Department.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., continued with the theme Wednesday night, accusing Mr. Obama of insulting "every American who ever got up at the crack of dawn, ... any American who ever put on overalls or a suit."
"When the president says, 'You didn't build that,' he is flat out wrong," Mr. Paul said. "Businessmen and women did build that. Businessmen and women did earn their success. Without the success of American business, we wouldn't have any roads or bridges or schools."
First Published August 30, 2012 12:43 am