If you've been paying no attention to the presidential campaign, there's probably one factoid about Republican Mitt Romney that has penetrated your consciousness by osmosis: He's a successful businessman.
With the economy sputtering, Romney's experience running private-equity firm Bain Capital for nearly 20 years ought to make him the go-to candidate for ideas on how to create jobs, outcompete other nations, and bring back prosperity. But anybody wondering how Romney's years as a business titan will help the middle class get back on its feet will apparently have to ask somebody else.
Beyond generalizations about his impressive resume, Romney seems more interested in changing the subject than in explaining how his business experience would help ordinary people get ahead if he became president. When Time's Mark Halperin pressed Romney on how his business experience would help a President Romney create jobs, his answer sounded like he'd be more comfortable discussing a prostate exam. Here are some of the things he said (and I'm not cherry-picking the weakest examples):
"My whole life has been learning to lead, from my parents, to my education, to the experience I had in the private sector." OK, but the question wasn't about your whole wonderful life, if was about your relevant experience as a private-equity poobah.
"Twenty five years in business … has given me an understanding of what it is that makes America a good place to grow and add jobs, and why jobs leave America." Right, we know that. So how will that help you create jobs?
"I understand, for instance, how to read a balance sheet." Wow. Cool. Didn't know that could create jobs. Anything else?
"I understand that in some industries, the input cost of energy is a major factor in whether an industry is going to locate in the United States or go elsewhere." Uh-huh.
"The fact is that I spent 25 years in the private sector. And that obviously teaches you something that you don't learn if you haven't spent any time in the private sector." Um, like what? Oh…. Never mind.
The Time interview was typical. There's a recurring modus operandi in Romney's media interviews: Gloss over the Bain years, emphasize the weak economy, and turn the discussion to Obama's lack of private-sector experience. Clearly, Romney HQ has the poll numbers and focus-group results to prove that hammering Obama's record is likely to be a more successful strategy than providing particulars about Romney's own qualifications.
Maybe so, but Romney is doing a disservice to voters, and perhaps to himself, by offering such thin answers to important questions. To Romney's critics, his evasions are evidence that he's vapid, elitist, and out of touch with the middle class. My guess, however, is that Romney is fully capable of providing a detailed blueprint for how to create jobs, for real. Here are three likely reasons that he won't:
1. He knows that healthy companies are often ruthless job cutters. That's how they stay competitive in a cutthroat global economy, and it's something Romney would have seen up close practically every day at Bain. But as a candidate, he can't very well acknowledge that creative destruction may be the best way to cull weak companies, make room for newer, stronger ones, and keep the overall economy humming.
2. Another big problem in the U.S. economy is workers—aka voters--with obsolete skills. Many of the firms Bain acquired during Romney's tenure were troubled ones, with outdated business models and bloated payrolls that made them uncompetitive. Romney the CEO certainly knew that these types of companies can't survive for long in the modern economy. But Romney the candidate can't exactly tell voters that their own outdated skills may be the real reason they're falling behind.
3. Obama's anti-Bain strategy is working. The Obama campaign portrays Romney as a corporate raider who enriched himself through a string of leveraged buyouts, with no concern for the little guy. There's some sophistry in that depiction, yet it may be effective in wooing voters with short attention spans who are mainly looking for scapegoats to blame for their fading fortunes. So Romney, with his penchant for gaffes, may be trying to steer clear of any rhetoric that would feed the Bain-is-evil theme. Too bad, because Romney the CEO may actually know a thing or two about how Americans can get out of a rut and become successful. For better or worse, he's not sharing.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.