Mitt Romney's work at Bain Capital is "fair game," as the Obama administration phrases it. Criticism of Romney's work there is not an assault on capitalism, nor is it "proof" of the absurd contention by foes of the president that he is a socialist (the bigger issue, anyway, is what passes for a liberal in our era of hyper-conservative resurgence).
But much of the blame for the attacks on Romney's work as a venture capitalist belongs with Romney himself. And it's not because of what he did at Bain; it's how he's cast it.
The former governor has used his background in finance to establish his bona fides as a job creator, someone who understands how the economy works and how to speed up the recovery. In fact, Romney did not create jobs, at least not directly. He helped restructure companies, arguably saving some jobs that might have been lost, but also having a part in the loss of some jobs.
Americans don't hate rich people. There is, in fact, more evidence that they worship the wealthy (hence, the widespread skepticism of increasing the estate tax, sometimes derisively, and inaccurately, called the "death tax"). Americans admire someone who built a business, who had an idea and made a living out of it, who created something, took a risk and made something new. This is not at all what Romney did.
The reason Romney's argument isn't resonating more broadly is that he did not make his money off his own success. He made his money off of other people's failures. That sounds distasteful to some people, which is why the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was able to use it so effectively against Romney in the 1994 Senate campaign.
But Romney is making it worse by casting his experience incorrectly. What he can say about his time at Bain is that he learned how to make the tough, painful decisions to salvage what could be saved of a struggling business. He could say, we're facing a massive debt and deficit. We're going to have to make some tough choices, without being influenced by constituency groups. I did that at Bain, and helped save some companies (even with fewer employees) that otherwise might have dissolved. It's not a popular job—it's much like the doctor who amputates a foot, saving the patient from a deadly blood infection—but it's sometimes necessary.
I watched this unfold in post-communist Europe. When countries began privatizing industry, foreign investors and advisers were stunned by the inefficiencies they saw. A manufacturer, for example, would have a huge machine to fix some random part, and the staff to do the work—even if it was only needed once a year. The sensible thing was to get rid of the machine and the people who run it, and contract out that repair work the one or two times a year it was needed. It wasn't a popular move among the people who lost their jobs, but it made sense—not just for profit-making, but for basic efficiency and common sense.
Running the government, of course, is far more complicated. You don't get to just fire Social Security recipients, even though that would save you a lot of money. It's not so easy to renegotiate, say, Medicare or transit aid when people and local governments have come to rely on those programs. You don't get to make all the decisions, as a CEO might be able to do. The comparison between running a business and running a country is made often by candidates with business backgrounds, and the analogy, while sincerely made, is based on some naïve assumptions.
But Romney doesn't have to argue that he can create jobs. He can use his work at Bain—as cold as it might seem to some—along with his Olympics experience, and present himself as a fixer during tough times. Romney may or may not qualify as a fixer. But it's a much stronger argument than the claim that he is a proven job creator.
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