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July 19, 2012 8:58 AM The Contender Mitt Romney Could’ve Been

By Ezra Klein

Last week, a friend put the U.S. presidential race in depressingly clear terms: This election is a choice between a Democratic president who voters don’t think is able to solve our economic problems and a Republican candidate who voters think is committed to the same doctrines and institutions that helped produce them.

So who do you want, America? The guy who can’t seem to get us out of this mess, or the party that helped get us into it? But there’s a candidate out there who could have made this election something very different — a candidate perfectly suited to this unusual moment in American politics. That candidate? Mitt Romney.

I don’t mean, of course, Romney the purveyor of Republican boilerplate and one-percenter obliviousness who actually won the Republican primaries. That Romney is, if anything, uniquely ill- suited to the demands of the moment, which combines a need for fresh thinking with a profound mistrust of the existing power structure. I’m referring to the Romney who could have been.

Romney entered this race with three striking credentials for a presidential candidate: He was one of the most successful private equity executives of all time. He was the first governor to pass and implement a near-universal health-care program. And he was a moderate Republican who had, at various points in his career, spoken out against his party’s more extreme orthodoxies. For various reasons, the real Romney abandoned each of those qualifications.

Privatizing Profits

From the beginning of his campaign, Romney spun his tenure at Bain Capital LLC. He told voters that Bain was all about job creation. That’s manifestly untrue. Bain’s prospectus never mentions the words “jobs” or “employment.” Bain is — and was — organized to maximize wealth for shareholders. Sometimes it maximized their wealth in ways that hurt the rest of us, as when Bain executives loaded companies with tax-deductible debt, used it to pay themselves and investors huge dividends, and then fled the scene as the company fell into bankruptcy. As Anthony Luzzatto Gardner wrote, that was, in effect, privatizing profits while socializing losses. But that’s not all Bain did.

A better, alternate Romney would tell a very different story. He would explain that one reason the U.S. economy is stronger than those of other developed nations is that Americans are unsentimental; we keep our labor markets flexible, force our business leaders to fear takeovers and buyouts, and let struggling companies die. He would say that Bain was an engine of corporate restructuring and, at times, destruction, and that when Bain closed down a plant because it wasn’t sufficiently competitive and moved that capital to more productive purposes, it performed a worthwhile service for the entire economy.

He would say the lesson he took from Bain is that countries aren’t all that different from companies: If we decide it’s just too hard and painful to make the changes need to remain competitive, we too will wake up one day to find the global economy has passed us by.

A Romney who said all that could present himself as the unsentimental turnaround artist our ailing economy needs. However, he would also need to tell a more honest story about the human costs. Rather than denying that Bain’s activities sometimes hurt workers, he would admit it. Rather than offering paeans to free enterprise and risk taking, he would acknowledge that the modern economy isn’t fair and is sometimes downright cruel. Workers lose their jobs, their health insurance and their self respect because management is insufficiently farsighted, or because advances in shipping technology make it cheaper to move a factory to China. The solution, he would say, isn’t to make our companies less competitive. Rather, the answer is to make our government more compassionate and more effective in helping those left behind.

Universal Care

Our alternate Romney could point to his work in Massachusetts as evidence that his words are more than just a script. When Romney left Bain to lead the Bay State, he passed and implemented the first statewide universal health-care system. He made sure that no one who lost a job would also lose health insurance.

The alternate Romney would say that his health-care plan wasn’t a perfect end but a powerful first step. He would describe the problems in the health-care market that he realized only the federal government can fix, including the system’s emphasis on employer-based coverage. And he would propose reforms to free workers and employers alike from that system. That is to say, rather than trying to repeal the national version of Romneycare, he would make it Romneycare Plus.

Because the alternate Romney is still a Republican, he would also back Representative Paul Ryan’s latest proposal for Medicare reforms and propose integrating Medicare exchanges with the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges, enabling people to retain the same insurance throughout their lives, a change that would improve insurance markets and health outcomes by encouraging insurers to care about the long-term health of their customers.

Moreover, this Romney wouldn’t stop with health care. Our analytical alternate would say that although there’s much we don’t know about preparing our children to compete in tomorrow’s economy, data suggest that early childhood education offers more bang-for-the-buck than virtually any other investment, and so we should focus on it.

This Romney would propose a raft of specific spending cuts — including cuts to defense — to help pay for his new programs and to cut the deficit. He would also point out that the rich have done pretty darn well in recent years (if you don’t believe him, just have a look at his tax returns). This Romney would argue that if capitalists are to credibly ask for continued sacrifice from workers, they will need to show they’re sacrificing, too.

So alternate Romney would propose raising taxes on the rich.

Long View

When, in response, he was flayed by his fellow Republicans, as he no doubt would be, rather than buckle to pressure he would make his case: If we don’t raise taxes and secure the social safety net, then the viciousness of the global economy, the sense of unfairness driven by inequality, and the pain of a slow recovery will lead future politicians to embrace excessive labor market regulations and protectionism, both of which will hurt the economy in the long run.

Alternate Romney would remind Republicans that they need to be for capitalism first and capitalists second, and that as long as our economy remains free, and the political consensus that supports it remains stable, the capitalists will do just fine.

Of course, this Romney would probably have finished last in the Republican primaries. And that’s why he doesn’t exist — and why Republicans may well fail to win back the White House despite persistent high unemployment.

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Ezra Klein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Comments

  • Kuji on July 20, 2012 8:40 AM:

    I think Ezra is giving Mitt Romney way to much credit. Obviously the candidate he is describing does not exist, so why even entertain the thought?

    I could have been one of the greatest philanthropists of all times, only if I had 300 billion dollars and an altruistic streak of empathy, but I don't, so I'm not. Mitt Romney COULD have been a great politician, but he can't see past his own selfish goals of being totally Mitt, superstar,rich guy, commander-in-chief of the SS Ego, so any convictions he may have in an alternate time-line are locked in the cellar never to see the light of day for the sake of moment-to-moment polling.

    I understand what Ezra is trying to say, but why even give any credence to this sub par candidate. Whatever good things he may have been able to do, he's completely sold out a long time ago to a select few people and will be looking out for their interests for the sake of being President for 8 years.

  • samg on July 20, 2012 10:11 AM:

    You got it, Ezra. That Romney doesn't exist. And, like you say, if he did he'd have finished last in the Republican primaries. There's no room in the GOP any more for people of that stripe. They're all plumb crazy. And so their candidate has to be, or pretend to be. But if you spend too much time with crazy people, you get crazy yourself. And that's what's happened to Romney.

  • Greg in FL on July 20, 2012 1:17 PM:

    The Romney you want is named George. Sadly he's passed away.

    The Romney we have doesn't even have the sensibility or the backbone to stand up to right wingers in a debate audience who booed a US soldier at station overseas simply because he was gay. That would have been a moment of defining leadership, standing up to idiots in his own party, something that could have been proudly advertised in the campaign.

    But Mitt was too afraid. And people are, I hope, smart enough to see that a man afraid of his own partisans would be a disaster in confronting Iran or Russia or China.

  • N.Wells on July 20, 2012 7:13 PM:

    I'm a pain-for-gain, delayed-gratification sort of person, but this is ridiculous. First, Romney primarily did not make companies more efficient, as much as he made them pay for being stripped: he loaded them up with debt, stripped them of assets, and left creditors and pensioners holding the bag. That's no more "efficient" than a vulture is merciful. He got $7 million for saving jobs at Dade Behring in Puerto Rico, then moved the jobs and a lot of people to Miami, and then folded the company but made the people pay back their relocation loans, stranding them jobless in Miami. Second, to characterize Obama as "the guy who canít seem to get us out of this mess" is unfair: the mess would have been far worse without Obama's remedies, and would be much better if Republicans had blocked so much via minority filibusters.

  • N.Wells on July 20, 2012 9:51 PM:

    "had NOT blocked". Grrrr.

  • concernedcitizen on July 20, 2012 10:51 PM:

    it is so true. he could have been much better in another time.

    you could say the same about some other politicians, too.
    tim pawlenty could talk about his support for cap and trade based on his record of Minnesota's successful wind power industry.
    even rick perry could talk more honestly about the need of help to immigrant children or jeb bush can talk about educational reform as he did in florida.

    alas, it is voters, especially primary voters, who decide.
    they like a michelle bachman, harman cain or a ron paul of the world.
    Mitt Romney has to play dumb and i'm afraid he would have to continue to do so in the white house.

    as much as democrats had its own flaws and dumb voters of their own,
    they are at least better than republicans. they can fight against extremists/tea partiers. obama and democrats work together and listened to others including conservatives to pass historic laws.

    another political reason to vote for obama is that obama also doesn't have to get re-relected again, whereas Romney would have to be careful.

    Romney is a talented, intelligent, experienced technocrat but i think he would bent to the status quo of senior republican senators and can't control crazy house republicans, i'm sure. also i'm worried about his foreign policy...

    i think we need a reformer for republicans who can get rid of tea party radicals and work with moderates and democrats.

    after all, majority of americans are centrists or moderates within their own parties who want to work together to solve big problems or least at not make situations worse.

  • Steve LaBonne on July 21, 2012 8:55 AM:

    The US economy IS NOT stronger than those of quite a number of other developed countries- quite the contrary. We won't even get started on dealing with our problems until we stop telling ourselves that lie. The things Klein would have had Romney brag about are weaknesses (unless you belong to the 0.01%).

    Also, for concerned citizen- we already have a moderate President and a moderate Democratic Party. Their dead-centrism is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Moderatism is poison, it's just slower-acting poison than teabaggery We need to start thinking outside the Village consensus if we're going to rebuild a strong economy and society.

  • Rich on July 22, 2012 12:12 AM:

    Ezra, being part of the DC chattering class obviously warped your brain. Government isn't a business and the Bush administration ran the country like a turnaround--outsorucing the military to part-timers with lousy benefuts (the reserves), oursourcing vital functions like nation buildings to rightwing interns (Iraq), and that's just the beginning of the list.

    "Good on paper" candidates, even those with great symbolic appeal are often the worst possible (and unsuccessful) candidates: John Glenn (hero/astronaut/former business man), and Bruce babbitt (the ultimate wonk hero) come to mind. Pawlenty is probably another. Usually any candidate much loved by pundits is a disaster. Clinton, who none of the insiders liked, was a far better politician than anyone else even remotely considered by the Dems in '92.

  • Texas Aggie on July 22, 2012 7:52 PM:

    N. Wells, Obama can't get us out of this mess because the republicans block everything they can, but it still amounts to Obama can't get us out of this mess even though it isn't his fault that he can't. Romney, on the other hand, has no intention of getting us out of this mess, and instead wants to double down on what got us into it in the first place.

    Steve, as you imply, the only thing you find in the center of the road are dead armadillos.

    George Romney would be the person we need at this point. I sometimes wonder whether there was a mistake in the hospital at one point because I find it very difficult to believe that Mitt is genetically related to George. They really have nothing in common as far as personality and character go. I even wonder if Mitt is the actual person that George raised because he shows no sign of having internalized any of George's attributes. When George was running is the first presidential election I could vote in, so I found out quite a bit about him at the time, and I really admired him, but Mitt is a whole different story. It's like his empathy centers atrophied at an early age, and he grew up to be a borderline psychopath.

  • Objective Dem on July 25, 2012 5:02 PM:

    I found the comments about economic competition to be very simplistic. Ayn Rand would be proud.