What does it mean that almost everyone in the GOP race looks kind of icky in this Sudden Bain Eruption? Gingrich, Perry, and Huntsman have all piled on with demagoguery about Romney and Bain, depicting Bain Capital as a soulless corporate predator, like the fictional company whose owner Richard Gere portrayed in Pretty Woman. In one scene from that movie, Julia Roberts’ character, Vivian, asks Gere’s (Edward Lewis) about his business:
Vivian: So you don’t actually have a billion dollars, huh?
Edward: No, I get some of it from banks, investors…
Vivian: And you don’t make anything and you don’t build anything.
Edward: No. No.
Vivian: So what do you do with the companies once you buy them?
Edward: I sell them.
Vivian: … You sell them.
Edward: Well, l… don’t sell the whole company; I break it up into pieces… and then I sell that off; it’s worth more than the whole.
Vivian: So it’s sort of like, um, stealing cars and selling ’em for the parts, right?
Edward: [ Exhales ] Yeah, sort of. But legal.
Edward Lewis could have added: “… and I love being able to FIRE PEOPLE!!” Or so the soundbite-driven understanding of all this would have it.
You’d think Romney’s opponents would know that much of the base they’re trying to appeal to hates demagoguery against business. When a business isn’t profitable, there are good reasons why it’s better to repackage and repurpose its assets for more profitable use. Unprofitable businesses aren’t made profitable by political bailouts; they are made dependent and unsustainable. Businesses like Bain Capital ensure that resources are being put to the most profitable, job-creating uses, given the environment of regulation and taxes that businesses have to operate in. There’s nothing wrong with the existence of such companies; indeed, they are a positive factor in a dynamic business climate.
But then, Romney is tin-eared himself on some significant things. He did, in fact, say that he likes to be able to fire people if they’re not performing. That is a stupid, politically insensitive way to word a valid requirement of a healthy economy. People sometimes have to be fired, but it’s suspicious for someone to “like” being able to do it. There is nothing more gratifying than an employee who does well, and in particular one who improves over time, while there is nothing that makes the average boss feel as terrible as having to fire one who simply can’t seem to measure up.
Why couldn’t Romney have said instead that businesses need to be able to fire non-performing employees, even though it’s never any fun to do that? Apparently because that’s not the way he sees it. His phrase about liking to be able to fire people is the one that came naturally to him. It doesn’t mean he’s a cold-hearted jerk who loves to give people bad news, but it is a personality problem for him in political leadership. ‘80s-era pop psychologists would have said that he is very “objective-oriented”: he resonates to the idea of the goal and the achievement, and gives short shrift to the people.
Republicans do want a better climate for business, but the more abstract, data-focused perspective of a Bain Capital graduate is not necessarily what they are looking for. I don’t actually want a president who imagines he can boost the bottom line of US companies. I want one who understands that government policies affect people, largely through the constraints they put on business. And I want him to respect the rights and dignity of individual people, neither trying to bribe them with goodies nor trying to herd them into programs that he sees as financially smart. I’m not looking for a president with an opinion on whether a whole bunch of things he isn’t in charge of can be profitable.
Bringing up Bain as an issue has also turned up the fact that Bain profited from a deal in the early 1990s involving a steel company that received a $44 million federal bailout for its pension plan. While it is demagoguery to equate this with Bain itself receiving a federal bailout, it is still a problem for Romney. Companies like Bain have been operating in the environment of government incentives, regulations, and bailouts for quite a while now, and Romney’s record is one of being comfortable with that. (He endorsed the TARP bailout in 2008.)
More and more of the people are not comfortable with it. It is well and good that Romney wants the government to get off business’s back, but it’s not OK to remove only some constraints while leaving others, and continuing to bail the whole mess out.
Sadly, Romney’s opponents have wasted a superb opportunity to talk about what they think is the proper relationship between business and government. They have simply jumped on the demagoguery bandwagon, which frankly is cheap and annoying. If I were crafting talking points, I would address the “liking to fire people” comment graciously – something along the lines of “I’m sure this is what Governor Romney meant to say” – and focus more on Romney’s comfort with the extent to which government regulates business, profits from regulating business, and bails business out so it can keep regulating and profiting.
One last thought. In contrast to the bloviation-fest precipitated by the Bain Eruption, consider the cool dispatch and intelligence with which the candidates knocked down the idiotic social-issue questions posed by Stephanopoulos and Sawyer in the debate on Saturday night. The candidates were ready to talk about those issues – irrelevant as they were – with principled specifics.
On the matter of business and government, however, it’s been all big-government complacency on one side, and all mindless demagoguery on the other. Not a hint of a principled argument about the free market and the appropriate role of government, from the perspective of either a man-and-the-state theory, or a regulation-vs.-the-market theory.
Nothing has made clear like the last 40 months that there is no longer an American consensus on these matters. The Obama camp knows exactly where it stands. But the GOP candidates aren’t internally motivated and prepared to make specific cases about it, as they are about social issues. Yet that’s what the voters are waiting to hear.