Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bain's Back

Newt tried to warn the GOP primary voters, but they wouldn't listen.

Not that you can really blame them--after all, Newt wasn't exactly a good alternative. Nor was anyone else in the GOP primary field. But they were warned.

Six months ago, I wrote a piece on Newt's attacks on Mitt Romney's leadership at Bain. As I argued back then, that debate revealed the tension between two basic ideological components of the Reagan coalition that have always been at odds: traditional values and free markets (especially the amoral changes that result from the unrestrained activities thereof).

Today, all the political commentators are in a tizzy over when exactly Romney gave up control over Bain, and whether he is responsible for decisions made between 1999 and 2002. That's interesting in a micro-, inside-the-Beltway kind of way, I suppose. But I still think the important question is why Romney is trying so hard to distance himself from those business activities.

The answer lies, I think, in that tension.

The reason Romney is so intent on claiming that he had nothing whatsoever to do with Bain's business decisions after 1999 is that the company was involved in sending jobs overseas. In free market terms, that's entirely justifiable. If there's more profit from cheap labor overseas, away go the jobs. But it also violates traditional values like patriotism and support for working families. Politically, that's dicey.

Back in January, rather than address that tension, Romney did what Romney does: he took the easy way out. Gingrich made the moral argument: "Just because you have the right to do something, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do." Romney did not engage Newt on substance, he did not try to explain why what might seem like unsavory business practices were in fact "the right thing to do." Instead, he accused Gingrich of putting "free enterprise on trial."

The consequence of that decision is that Romney failed to either 1) embrace the idea that there should be moral restraints on business by agreeing with Gingrich or 2) counter that idea and argue that while sending American jobs overseas in search of greater profits hurts some people in the short run, it serves the greater good in the long run.

Had Romney done either, he'd be in a position to fight today's attack from the Obama campaign. Instead, he did what he always does: he ducked the question, he refused to take any clear stand.

I wrote in January that Newt was warning Republican voters, "if they nominate Mitt Romney, [they] are handing this potent political issue to President Obama, and with it, possibly, an essential component of Republican political success over the last 30 years."

That's where we are today. If, as some people are suggesting, Romney were now to disown those practices openly, he would be accused (rightly) of flip-flopping and adopting Newt's old position, the one he described as putting free enterprise on trial. If he were to defend them openly, as others suggest, he would alienate working class voters who might otherwise vote for him.

So what does he do? Neither. He just says that he had nothing to do with those practices because he had left Bain already, so he does not need to pass judgment on them either way. That's why he is so intent on saying he left Bain in 1999--so he can avoid taking a stand.

I believe that is why this incident may end up hurting Romney badly. The specific issues--when did he leave Bain, what do the SEC documents mean--are too arcane for most voters to follow. But people know when someone is afraid to take a stand. They see it when someone can't give a straight answer to a simple question. They sense when someone has something to hide.

Right now, everything about Romney's words and behavior sends those signals to voters.

He either failed to see the importance of Newt's critique in January, or he saw it and ignored it because of his short-term focus on getting the nomination. Regardless, his failure to address it honestly then is costing him now, and as a result, my conclusion then seems even more apt now:

"If Obama can take advantage of Romney's moral blindness and regain a significant number of Reagan Democrats, he will win re-election. If he can go further and recapture the mantle of the moral dimension of politics, he can realign American politics and fracture the Reagan coalition."


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