Politics and Public Opinion

Mitt Romney and ‘Defending Your Life’

I’m not sure the WSJ’s Bret Stephens is right about this:

Did nobody in Mr. Romney’s expensive campaign shop tell him that this question was sure to come, and that a decision had to be made, in advance, as to what the answer would be? Great CEOs don’t just surround themselves with consultants and advance men. They also hire contrarians, alter egos and at least someone who isn’t afraid to poke a finger in their chest. On the evidence of his campaign, Mr. Romney is a lousy CEO.

But it’s worse than that. The usual rap on Mr. Romney is that he’s robotic, but the real reason he can’t gain traction with voters is that they suspect he’s concealing some unnameable private doubt. Al Gore and George Bush Sr. were like that, too, and not just because they were all to the proverbial manor born. It’s that they were basically hollow men. Thus the core difference between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama: For the governor, the convictions are the veneer. For the president, the pragmatism is. Voters always see through this. They usually prefer the man who stands for something.

I think Romney does stand for something, free-market capitalism — the very thing Barack Obama is going to put on trial during this general election. I think the FT’s Gideon Rachman hits the target on this:

In the era of Occupy Wall Street, Mr Romney is the perfect person to stimulate the debate. Almost every issue thrown up by the protests against income inequality are encapsulated in his career. He is a multimillionaire, who made his fortune restructuring companies – in ways that often involved job losses and sometimes saw the companies taken over later collapse. He has benefited from a 15 per cent tax rate and has apparently sheltered some of his money in the Cayman Islands.

The Obama camp will pile into this, and might make some headway. A Pew poll, taken last December, showed that only 50 per cent of Americans react positively to the word “capitalism”, compared with 40 per cent who have a negative view.

And yet there is a defence of all this. Bain Capital and other private equity firms create jobs, as well as cutting them. Capitalism has to involve inefficient businesses being restructured and going to the wall. Acceptance of a free enterprise system also involves accepting that financial rewards are allocated in ways that might not always seem “fair”. Mr Romney is more than happy to make a robust defence of the “creative destruction” involved in capitalism. And Mr Obama will have to be careful about getting too close to Occupy Wall Street – whose views and style will not always go down well on Main Street. It is complicated, which is why it will make for a fruitful debate.

Romney makes the perfect target, and we’ll see if he makes the perfect advocate for Schumpeterian capitalism, assuming he gets the nomination. It could be like the whimsical Albert Brooks’s film “Defending Your Life” where the recently deceased have to successfully defend key decisions in their life (played before them on a video screen) before moving on—or else get reincarnated back on Earth to try again. In the movie, Meryl Streep plays Julia, a confident, uber-capable women whose trial turns into a celebration of her courage. Brooks Daniel, on the other hand, stumbles though his and fails to adequately defend his life. Daniel’s reoccurring problem is one of fear, including fear of rejection from Julia, whom he’s fallen in love with.

Obama and the MSM will pick and choose snippets of Romney’s Bain career and attempt to make them emblematic of the whole. He will have to confidently and unapologetically defend them and the wealth his private equity/venture capital career has brought him. At least if he wants to move on.

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