The American People Have Lied To Mitt Romney
Throughout the campaign, Mitt Romney’s go-to response to criticism of his tenure as CEO of Bain Capital has been to characterize it as anti-capitalist. He won’t apologize for his great success, he says; he wants everybody to be rich! (Of course, and as Romney no doubt would acknowledge, capitalism doesn’t work unless there’s some kind of inequality present in society… so maybe not everybody should be rich…) In a Republican primary, courting an electorate which saw anything to the left of Bill O’Reilly as socialism, Romney was able to sidestep his way to freedom without truly addressing the charges.
As we enter week two of the media’s obsession with his time at Bain, I wonder if Romney’s wishing he’d spent a bit more time during the primary, when his opponents were pro-business Republicans, coming up with a winning answer.
Romney lost his 1994 Senate bid at least partly because of Ted Kennedy’s devastating attacks on Bain. In 2002 he won his race for governor, but he got beat up pretty badly over Bain by Shannon O’Brien in the process. In 2008 he had to defend himself against Bain attacks again. In 2012 Bain haunted him yet again during the Republican primaries. So it’s not as if he was unaware that Bain is a problem. Why does he still not have a better defense?
Drum’s question is certainly a fair one. Romney’s no dummy, after all; it must have occurred to him that running a campaign premised largely on years of success at Bain would inevitably lead to questions about the ethics thereof. He’s a famously risk-averse guy, and one who by all accounts treats the accumulation and analysis of information with a near-spiritual reverence. Ninety-four and ’02 are two pretty big, and foreboding, data points to ignore! Is Romney truly so ensconced in his own wealth and privilege that he doesn’t get why being less than six degrees of separation from Gordon Gekko is, at least in presidential politics, a bad thing?
Maybe — but I doubt it. Instead, I think Jonathan Chait was correct in noting that the most likely explanation for Romney’s lousy answers on Bain is the troublesome nonexistence of any good ones. After all, what’s Romney going to say? Pace Matt Yglesias, I don’t expect this most generic and orthodox of politicians to brand himself the defender of outsourcers everywhere anytime soon. Even if Romney was inclined to give a Big Speech on his accumulation of massive amounts of wealth, it strikes me as very unlikely that anyone would change their mind in his favor as a result. (Except maybe this guy.) And as David Frum pointed out, those who would find Romney’s defense of post-industrial capitalism stirring are simply not the voters he’s interested in:
Romney’s core problem is this: He heads a party that must win two-thirds of the white working-class vote in presidential elections to compensate for its weakness in almost every demographic category. The white working class is the most pessimistic and alienated group in the electorate, and it especially fears and dislikes the kind of financial methods that gained Romney his fortune.
But, wait, hold on just a minute. Are we to understand that working-class whites, Real Americans if ever they existed, don’t like capitalism? You’ll excuse me for double-taking, I hope, considering the well-worn truism that America is a center-right country, more economically libertarian than the rest of the West, and with a national self-image that binds itself to laissez-faire capitalism like nowhere else on Earth. Or, to put it differently, if being called a socialist is such a bruising critique for a politician, how can it be that the President’s political fortunes are buoyed by his focus on Bain?
Something is rotten in Disneyland.
Outside of RedState, most recognize Americans’ historical relationship with capitalism to be more multifaceted than the stereotype. But the fact that the über-capitalist Romney may incur serious political damage over his business career is still noteworthy. Since Romney’s private equity work is indisputably capitalist — indeed, many center-lefties are unapologetic in their support — it’s fair to conclude that, at least in today’s economy, “capitalism” is not the feel-good shibboleth of times before. Americans are a bunch of fair-weather capitalists.
That’s at least the inference a few big name pundits have drawn. And they don’t like it one bit.
David Brooks’ latest column, for example, is an elongated tsk-tsk; a textual manifestation of Brooks shaking his head slightly, eyes downcast, overcome with disappointment. The column is ostensibly about the Obama Administration. In reality, Brooks is disparaging the prejudices of the American people, prejudices he sees the President as all too willing to flatter. Brooks complains:
Instead of defending the policies of the last four years, the [Obama] campaign has begun a series of attacks on the things people don’t like about modern capitalism.
They don’t like the way unsuccessful firms go bust. Obama hit that with ads about a steel plant closure a few months ago. They don’t like C.E.O. salaries. President Obama hits that regularly. They don’t like financial shenanigans. Obama hits that. They don’t like outsourcing and offshoring. This week, Obama has been hitting that.
The president is now running an ad showing Mitt Romney tunelessly singing “America the Beautiful,” while the text on screen blasts him for shipping jobs to China, India and Mexico.
The accuracy of the ad has been questioned by the various fact-checking outfits. That need not detain us. It’s safest to assume that all the ads you see this year will be at least somewhat inaccurate because the ad-makers now take dishonesty as a mark of their professional toughness.
What matters is the ideology behind the ad: the assumption that Bain Capital, the private-equity firm founded by Romney, should not have invested in companies that hired workers abroad; the assumption that hiring Mexican or Indian workers is unpatriotic; the assumption that no worthy person would do what most global business leaders have been doing for the past half-century.
This ad — and the rhetoric the campaign is using around it — challenges the entire logic of capitalism as it has existed over several decades. It’s part of a comprehensive attack on the economic system Romney personifies. […]
Just as Republicans spent years promising voters that they could have tax cuts forever, now the Democrats are promising voters that they can have all the benefits of capitalism without the downsides, like plant closures, rich C.E.O.’s and outsourcing. Just as Republicans used to force Democrats into the eat-your-spinach posture (you need to have high taxes if you want your programs), now Democrats are casting Republicans into the eat-your-spinach posture (you need to accept outsourcing and the pains of creative destruction if you want your prosperity).
The Romney campaign doesn’t seem to know how to respond. For centuries, business leaders have been inept when writers, intellectuals and politicians attacked capitalism, and, so far, the Romney campaign is continuing that streak.
Brooks goes on to justifiably needle the President for hypocrisy. The same guy who repeatedly made a point of associating with Jeff Immelt of GE; the same guy who chose and stood by Tim Geithner as his Treasury Secretary; the same guy who dropped his promise to renegotiate NAFTA quicker than Paul Ryan dropped Ayn Rand; this is the voice of the American worker in 2012? The record says probably not, but something tells me David Brooks and Mitt Romney might not be the most genuine populists, either. But as Balloon Juice’s Doug J once said to me, you go to war with the left-neoliberal army you’ve got — not the social-democratic army you’d like.
Yet while Brooks and his ilk rend garments over the crypto-commies slinking through the US voting public, it’s worth keeping in mind the unstated assumption that undergirds their worries: Mainly, that capitalism as Romney performed it is capitalism—full stop—rather than a particular (and particularly callous) variant. Brooks hedges throughout his column, perhaps tacitly acknowledging this fact, by referring to capitalism “for the past half-century” and “as it has existed over several decades.” I couldn’t tell you for sure why he places the starting mark during the 1960s, since capitalism as we know it today largely came about in the late-1970s, but I could hazard a guess. It’s got a lot to do with the trade-off that, in Brooks’ telling, capitalism demands: prosperity for “outsourcing and the pains of creative destruction.”
Thing is, while the American economy has certainly been home a lot of pain and destruction over the past generation or so, the vast majority of us are still waiting on the prosperity half of the bargain. Folks like Romney have become fabulously, truly unfathomably, wealthy; but most workers have seen little or no benefit of their own. Wage-growth has been mediocre, and once we factor-in the consequences of the Great Recession, the result is a financial reality for most Americans that is more precarious and less prosperous than at any time in decades, if not generations. If this status quo is how capitalism is defined, is it any surprise that many voters are less-than-total adherents?
Mitt Romney wants us to see him as capitalism incarnate. Fine. But careful what you wish for, Governor. Sometimes it comes true.