The Priorities USA ad accusing Mitt Romney of pretty much killing a woman seems to have crossed a threshold of sorts that has prompted unusual levels of media indignation and even a cutting Onion parody of an Obama ad accusing Mitt Romney of having killed JonBenét Ramsey. Two of the most brilliant political commentators in America, Michael Kinsley and Jonathan Cohn, both have defenses of the ad. They’re both right in a certain narrow sense. Much of the media criticism has centered on the way the ad condenses the timeline, in which Bain closed a plant, a man lost his insurance, and then a few years later his wife lost insurance, and then she fell ill and died. As Kinsley notes, that she still had insurance when he lost his is beside the point — the Bain layoff was a necessary step in their progression from a couple with two spouses offering insurance to a couple with neither getting it.
The problem with the ad, rather, is that it relies on an argument Obama obviously doesn’t believe: that a business owner engaging in layoffs is morally responsible for what happens to his employees afterward. If we take the premise of the ad seriously, it is utterly immoral to lay anybody off. Indeed, Obama has proposed laying off federal employees. Terrible things will probably happen to some of those people. You could make an anti-Obama ad telling the story of one of them. Not really fair, is it?
Jonathan argues that the ad works as a critique of Romney’s social policies. That would be a good defense if the argument in the ad is that Romney’s plan is for people who can’t get employer-provided health insurance to risk financial ruin and suffer preventable pain and death. But the ad isn’t making an argument about Romney’s plan to repeal health-care reform and replace it with nothing. It’s making an argument for his role in business. The argument isn’t false. Some people believe that a business owner has a social responsibility not to lay off his employees. But there’s just no evidence Obama is one of those people.