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Romney, It’s an Inauguration, not a Coronation

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Can’t you just feel the temperature rising? Feel the rush of adrenalin as the political gladiators enter the arena and begin to slash each other to pieces. Doesn’t it feel a bit like Spartacus, but with suits replacing loincloths? (Think blood-stained Starz Sparacus, not the more refined Kirk Douglas one.)

The GOP presidential primary campaign is becoming more strident and colorful lately—especially as the debates are getting almost more TV airtime then reruns of Law & Order, just not on the same channels…. yet.

Aside from the theatrical and entertainment value of these political smackdowns (which seem a bit more like Thatcher and the backbenchers in Commons than the Lincoln-Douglas debates), a focused and patient listener might actually get to know something about the candidates by the time a real vote needs to be cast in November.

Of course, in addition to focus and patience, a debate watcher needs to have at least one other skill: the ability to, as JFK put it, separate the reality from the appearance of reality. All these guys are, to some extent, playing to what they see as the base of the Republican Party, which is the party’s right wing, and which is the extreme right wing of the electorate as a whole. A year or so ago, on his weekly show on HBO, Bill Maher remarked that it is impossible to meet the GOP in the middle these days because they are “so far to the extreme right” the middle is somewhere east of Mongolia. So if you are to make an intelligent judgment about whose lever to pull (or chad to punch) in November, you need to be able to tell the difference between principle and prevarication (that’s so Romney, yes?).

In the November election you will be able to vote for only one of the people at the podia, and that person for the moment appears to be front runner Mitt Romney. Given the unusual circumstances of the American economy and our position in the world today, the election of 2012 will doubtless be critically important to your financial future, that of your children, and the direction of this nation for quite a long time to come. For our purposes, your political affiliation and/or your ideological orientation doesn’t matter—what is relevant, however, is where Governor Romney actually stands, and what his election may mean to the fortunes and prospects of the American consumer.

As his fellow harpies dial-up the intensity and frequency of their attacks, there is a lot to be disregarded. Frankly, there is also a lot to be disregarded as Romney himself espouses his ever-evolving (wasn’t I nice?) themes and philosophy. But here are some thoughts as to how one might navigate the avalanche of platitudes and brickbats of the current political campaign.

First, forget about the fact that he’s a wealthy guy. None of the candidates is hurting for cash. And don’t hate Mitt for spending a sum on a vacation that exceeds all of your retirement savings, but don’t be impressed by it either. This is America after all.

And, of course, there is no need to take seriously either the flip or the flop on that large number of issues where the Great Equivocator seems to have—er—equivocated. Consistency, foolish or otherwise, is not a characteristic that can be ascribed to any presidential candidate. And finally, the fact that Bain Capital sometimes looted companies and killed jobs is not remarkable. Nor is the fact that Bain Capital sometimes created jobs. This is capitalism and all of the literally thousands of enterprises that call themselves private equity or hedge funds did exactly the same thing—perhaps on occasion with less voraciousness and enthusiasm—but also, for the most part, less successfully. What is notable about Mr. Romney’s association with Bain is what you can perhaps glean about his worldview. More on that later.

But here’s what we do know. Irrespective of his attempts to morph from moderate former Governor of Massachusetts into ardent right-wing GOP candidate of 2012, a number of Mr. Romney’s positions are pretty anti-consumer.

1. He hates the very idea of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and we can be certain that he would do his best to kill or, at the very least, emasculate it. He has, in fact, committed to “repeal[ing] the Dodd-Frank Act” in its entirety, and replacing it with something more “streamlined.” He promises that he’ll, “Initiate review and elimination of all Obama-era regulations that unduly burden the economy.” Did you catch that? He’s committed to eliminating the regulations before he’s actually reviewed them. I would expect more of any thoughtful and deliberative leader.

2. His tax plan would provide very little if any tax relief to the lower and middle classes, but would be a boon for high-income earners. The Associated Press, reporting on an analysis of Romney’s plan, wrote “On average, households making less than $20,000 would see their taxes increase by more than 60 percent, said the Tax Policy Center, a Washington research group that studied the Romney plan. Households making between $50,000 and $75,000 would get small tax cuts, averaging 2.2 percent, or about $250, the study said. People making more than $1 million would get tax cuts averaging 15 percent, or about $146,000.”

3. The scariest position Romney has taken seems to be among the most genuine—at least according to his aides who say that the policy came directly from Mitt himself. Even a Wall Street Journal editorial noted that, “By far the most troubling proposal is Mr. Romney’s call for ‘confronting China’ on trade… pledging to have his Treasury brand China a ‘currency manipulator’ if it doesn’t ‘move quickly to bring its currency to full value.’ He’d then hit Beijing with countervailing duties. Starting a trade war is a rare policy mistake that Mr. Obama hasn’t made, but Mr. Romney claims it is a way to faster growth… But giving Americans the impression that a trade war will bring … jobs back to the U.S. is offering false hope. It also distracts from the other fiscal and regulatory reforms that are needed to attract capital and create jobs.

So, he wants to go to war with China, albeit without rockets and missiles. Wouldn’t a trade war with China be an economic disaster for both the U.S. and the world economy, particularly at a time when we are in the doldrums and Europe is struggling with sovereign defaults along its southern and western coastlines? Why do these guys always want to go to war with someone?

While each of these positions is troubling in their own right, when I consider them together (eliminating all the static inherent in a hard-fought primary campaign), something else emerges for me about Governor Romney. It’s something vaguely belligerent and perhaps even plutocratic—something certainly not favorable to the 99%.

He’s a 21st century free market imperialist.

What’s that mean? It means that for him, capitalism is more like a game of Risk than a game of Monopoly.

Forget about his positions for the moment. The manner in which he speaks is also quite telling. Recently, he has talked about liking the concept of, “being able to fire people who provide services to me.” OK, so much of the media took that comment out of context. He was actually talking about health insurance companies. But forget the substance of the statement for a moment, and reflect upon the tone.

He could have said “companies that work for me.” After all, he famously told a heckler, “Corporations are people.” But for Mr. Romney, and many folks who are in his former line of work, I imagine, people are often viewed as small moving parts of an economic machine. In this context, they aren’t individuals who live in the United States or China. They don’t have mortgages, student loans or credit card debt. They are cogs—mere entries on a balance sheet that can be added and/or subtracted based on assessed value, though often somewhat indiscriminately. Things like regulations and taxes don’t impact people per se. They impact the manner in which those cogs function in the economic machine in which they exist. Indeed, often their individual needs are the bane of a Bain’s existence.

Presidents have the power to persuade and influence, but not the power to behave—or think or talk—like kings or generals. And this is how I believe Mitt Romney has come to see himself and his role in the world—not that he’d ever cop to it. I am reminded of George C. Scott playing Patton in the 1970 movie of the same name. In comparing himself to the knighted British general, Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, Patton says “Hell, I know I’m a prima donna—I admit it. What I can’t stand about Monty is that he won’t admit it.”

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