Police officers and firefighters are a tricky occupational category for Republicans. Culturally, they are allies — working class, mostly male, and beloved symbols of American values. Economically, though, they are government workers, which has always put their interests in tension with those of the GOP, and especially so in recent years, as Republicans have increasingly held up government workers as a kind of parasitic class.
Last night Mitt Romney was strolling across one side of this tricky line and slipped to the other. Appearing at a fund-raiser, he recounted his trip the day before to a Manhattan fire station. The point of it was to highlight the firefighters as cultural symbols — it was the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden operation, and Romney needed to wrap himself in 9/11 iconography to compete with President Obama. Romney decided to use the occasion as well to gather anecdotal stories about how the Obama economy is hurting regular people:
Romney also sought to stress, for a room of donors who had paid $2,500 a person to see him at the Pentagon City Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City, Va., that he was also speaking for the struggling middle class.
"I spoke with a fireman yesterday, and he has a one-bedroom apartment, and his wife is pregnant, and he can't afford a second bedroom," he said, referring to a visit to New York City. "I asked the firefighters I was meeting with, about 15 or them, how many had had to take another job to make ends meet, and almost every one of them had."
Well, maybe we should pay them more! Oh, wait — Romney’s position is that these fine public servants are luxuriating in excessive pay, a fact that, unlike swelling income inequality, constitutes a major source of unfairness in American life. (“We will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve,” he said last week.)
This is actually a policy flashpoint between the two parties. Public employment has cratered in recent years, with public sector jobs continuing to decline even as private sector jobs rebound, exerting a continued drag on the sluggish recovery. Obama’s position is that the federal government ought to provide aid to state governments to rehire some of the laid-off teachers, cops, and firefighters. Republicans oppose this. Romney seems to have forgotten that the firefighters he came face-to-face with are one category of Americans whose economic pain he’s supposed to be in favor of.