On Romney, Bain and Keeping Your Integrity

We’re far down the rabbit hole of primary season right now, and that inevitably means that charges and counter-charges are flying so fast that the news cycle can change dramatically from morning to afternoon. Naturally, when things are moving this quickly and emotions are running high, people get carried away. This happens to everyone. A lot of people who sit on the sidelines are too quick to say, “oh, so-and-so totally lost credibility with me by making that argument.” But candidates and pundits in particular are making arguments all day long, day after day; they’re going to grab hold now and then of a story they should know better than to believe or an argument they should know better than to make. Like anything in life, the test of character is not the occasional stumble but the long sweep of your record over time – whether you back off when you’ve dug into an untenable position, whether you learn from mistakes.
This comes to mind with yesterday’s confluence of attacks on Mitt Romney’s business record at Bain Capital and his ill-timed quip that “I like to be able to fire people.” To varying extents, the Gingrich and Perry campaigns and their supporters jumped all over him on both counts. A pro-Newt SuperPAC is rolling out a 27-minute documentary attacking Romney’s Bain record; as Erick notes, Perry’s campaign has been pushing a more modest line of attack against the Bain record, but still one that has something of a whiff of desperation about it. Perry’s camp also pushed a downloadable ringtone of Romney’s “fire” line. With time and some context, both campaigns backed off hitting Mitt on the “fire” comment: Perry’s people pulled the ringtone, and Newt told Fox News that the line had been taken out of context.
The “fire” comment is the easier call. Romney was making a completely valid point: that people should be able to fire service providers like insurance companies if they’re not getting good service. That’s one of the pro-consumer aspects of the conservative message, and where we part company from liberals who think first of protecting entrenched interests at the expense of consumer choice. That being said, the comment fed directly into the most damaging narratives about Romney, and was emblematic of how he’s much like Rick Santorum in terms of his tendency to use cringe-inducingly tin-eared language when he’s making even valid points.
The Bain storyline is a little more complicated, in part because there are a lot of angles to Bain’s business; while Romney’s record, as Jim Pethokoukis notes, includes a lot to be proud of, as Jonathan Last notes, you don’t have to necessarily take that business record as a whole if there are aspects worth defending and aspects worth criticizing. A fair amount of what businesses like Bain do is to step in and take over businesses that are in bad shape. We have an ongoing debate in this country about what to do with failing businesses, but denying they’re failing is not an option – either you shutter or restructure them or you prop them up, and that raises the question of who gets stuck with the bill for propping them up. One of the great scandals of the past 5 years, which has given rise to the Tea Party and to some extent the Occupy Wall Street movement as well, has been the extent to which the answer to that question has been the taxpayers.
So, I don’t like seeing pro-free-market Republicans attacking the concept of what Bain does, any more than I liked seeing Romney attack Rick Perry from the left on entitlements. But just because the role of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists is a crucial and necessary one does not mean that they are likely to be popular candidates in today’s general election environment. Criminal defense lawyers, for example may be crucially necessary to our system of justice, but if they have represented a lot of unpopular clients, they are not likely to be politically viable. I continue to think that Romney’s business record is an under-explored political vulnerability (one Ted Kennedy used against Romney in 1994, but didn’t even use all the ads he cut) that the Democrats will exploit ruthlessly. And Romney’s existing defenses of that record are fairly weak. We should not be caught unawares by this in the summer and fall when it’s too late to pick another candidate. In many ways, it’s like the swift boat story. You’ll recall that the centerpiece of John Kerry’s electability argument in 2004 was his military record – not any policy proposal on national security, mind you, but the simple fact of his biography as a war hero. Given that Kerry had decades-old enemies from his activties as an anti-war protestor, it was unwise for Democrats to assume that this biographical narrative alone would go unchallenged in the general election. But that’s exactly what they did, and the Swift Boat Veterans’ ads (especially the ads using Kerry’s own Senate testimony from 1970) did terrible damage to Kerry.
Romney’s story is much the same. There’s no serious argument that Romney’s record of supporting free enterprise and job growth in his single term as Massachusetts governor is better than the records of Perry, Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman; his claim to be a job creation specialist is grounded in his record at Bain, and just like Kerry’s war hero biography, this claim is bound to attract scrutiny. It would be foolishness in the extreme for Republicans to demand that nobody talk about this during the time when we’re choosing a candidate. The harder question, for free-market Republicans, is how to have a serious debate on this point without compromising our integrity and our principles.
The fear that Bain, and Romney’s wealth (by birth as well as his business wealth) will be a political liability is hardly fanciful. Look back over the years at the list of wealthy Republican candidates who put their wealth ahead of their limited records in public office. The California GOP has had the worst record: Bill Simon, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Michael Huffington, and Bruce Herschensohn all flopped. The positive example is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proved a disaster for California conservatives in office. Simon, a good and decent man and fairly conservative, faced an opponent with approval ratings so terrible on Election Day that he was recalled just months later – yet the Democrats tore Simon limb from limb with attacks on his private business record. Republicans in other states or at the national level have often found such candidates to be electoral failures or totally unreliable in pursuing our party’s principles in office: Herman Cain, Mike Bloomberg, Carl Paladino, Linda McMahon, Jack Ryan, Pete Coors, Pete Dawkins. (Ron Johnson and Rick Scott being rare exceptions, and Scott only won after a searing campaign against his business record). An understanding of private business is a valuable thing for public officials, but it’s no substitute for experience pursuing good public policies; Jon Corzine was a success in business before he ran New Jersey into the ground, and the most successful businessman ever to be president was Herbert Hoover. It’s entirely valid for Republicans to ask whether we are buying ourselves a similar set of headaches with Romney.
The other point I would make about integrity is that it goes close to the core of why a Romney nomination worries me so much: because we would all have to make so many compromises to defend him that at the end of the day we may not even recognize ourselves. Romney has, in a career in public office of just four years (plus about 8 years’ worth of campaigning), changed his position on just about every major issue you can think of, and his signature accomplishment in office was to be wrong on the largest policy issue of this campaign. Yes, Obama is bad, and Romney can be defended on the grounds that he can’t possibly be worse. Yes, Romney is personally a good man, a success in business, faith and family. But aside from his business biography, his primary campaign has been built entirely on arguments and strategies – about touting his own electability and dividing, coopting or delegitimizing other Republicans – none of which will be of any use in the general election. What, then, will we as politically active Republicans say about him? I was not a huge fan of John McCain’s record, but I was comfortable making honest points about the things McCain had been consistent on over the years – national security, free trade, nuclear power, public integrity, pork-barrel spending. There were spots of solid ground on which to plant ourselves with McCain, and he had a history of digging himself in on those and fighting for things he believed in. But Mitt Romney’s record is just one endless sheet of thin ice as far as the eye can see – there’s no way to have any kind of confidence that we can tell people he stands for something today without being made fools of tomorrow. We who have laughed along with Jim Geraghty’s prescient point that every Obama promise comes with an expiration date will be the ones laughed at, and worse yet we will know the critics are right. Every time I try to talk myself into thinking we can live with him, I run into this problem. It’s one that particularly bedeviled Republicans during the Nixon years – many partisan Republicans loved Nixon because he made the right enemies and fought them without cease or mercy, but the man’s actual policies compromised so many of our principles that the party was crippled in the process even before Watergate. We can stand for Romney, but we’ll find soon enough that that’s all we stand for.
The problem is not entirely without its solutions; one of those is that the only real mechanism conservatives would have for keeping Romney honest is to pour efforts into getting more conservatives elected in the House and Senate, and in particular targeting primary challenges at people who have supported Romney. But that’s a desperate measure, and it still doesn’t answer the question of how we make the affirmative case for Romney without losing our integrity. Which is precisely why we need a hard look now at what we’re getting in return.

14 thoughts on “On Romney, Bain and Keeping Your Integrity”

  1. Wow. Now that it is really looking like Romney will get the nomination, the Romney haters are really out in force. The only real surprise is that Erick Erickson has been modulating his loathing – I really expected him to go down the O’Donnell/Angle/Buck rabbithole, but he has actually been a voice of reason the past week or two.
    As for this post, I don’t really find it persuasive at all. Of course there will be scrutiny of Romney’s record at Bain. Obama will put it in the worst light possible. Which is absolutely no different than if the GOP nominated someone like Perry who has no business record – they’d STILL scrutinize every move that the nominee made. Crank brings up the bad track records of businessmen/women in the California GOP of the past 2 decade. But the career politicians have not done any better. And, BTW, who exactly is making the argument that Mitt should not be, or will not be, scrutinized on his Bain record? It’s a strawman argument.
    If anything, the second part of this post – about integrity – is even worse that the first part. How about this: don’t defend his “old” positions (with which you disagree) and don’t claim he’s been consistent – just defend his new positions. Voila, no problem with your integrity. Is that really so hard? Oh, and if Romney is elected and then goes back on his campaign positions (which will inevitably happen – every President has done so), feel free to attack him on that.
    Crank’s statement that we would need to support conservative legislative candidates to reduce the occurrences of him going back on his campaign positions is correct – but of course supporting conservative legislative candidates is the plan *no matter who is President*. And, really, primary-ing supporters of Romney? Really? Like, say, Chris Christie? This is utterly absurd. It’s Mitt Derangement Syndrome. Especially from someone who was all set to support the Scozzafava-supporting Newt if Perry dropped out.

  2. As you will recall, Erick did not support Angle, he thought she & Lowden were both bad candidates and supported Tark.
    I’m not saying we primary perfectly good governors like Haley and Christie, but I do think the calculus of who to primary in Congress should include whether people endorsed Romney and are thus more likely to follow him to bad places.

  3. Not that the pack of liars and fools trailing Romney is any sort of special group of politicians or campaigners but don’t you think that, at least at the seemingly increasing number of times Romney goes Full Romney and says something completely, well, insane, they have to be thinking what Jon Lovitz said aloud while playing Michael Dukakis in an SNL skit debate against George HW Bush, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!”
    A.S. while I generally disagree strongly with Crank on pretty much anything political I would certainly give him credit for a level of consistancy on his particulars for candidates to support. The idea of supporting Romney’s “current positions” is a non-starter because he feels (and knows) that Romney actually has no real positions and goes with whatever group he is talking to for the most part. I think Crank could live with him if he wasn’t constantly shifting, modifying, changing and massaging current positions while pretty much abjectly denying he has held other positions in the past.

  4. Fair enough, Crank. I have no objection to holding people accountable for their endorsements (e.g., holding people accountable for endorsing O’Donnell/Angle/Buck, etc.).
    I’ll add, BTW, that I am glad the Bain issue is coming out now. Romney should have to defend his Bain record in the primary. And I think this is the perfect time to have the Bain issue come out. Let Newt put millions of dollars of ads on in South Carolina; it’s not like a Republican is going to lose that state to Obama anyway. The only issue is how Newt, and to some extent Perry, are doing it.

  5. “The other point I would make about integrity is that it goes close to the core of why a Romney nomination worries me so much: because we would all have to make so many compromises to defend him that at the end of the day we may not even recognize ourselves.”
    Won’t conservative Republicans have that problem with pretty much any non-conservative Republican candidate? The issues may change, but the compromising will be the same.
    As for their business background, you’ve overcome that hurdle before, e.g., Bush’s connections to big oil. Other candidates may have disappointed you, but Herman Cain is out not because of his pizza business, but rather his alleged “side dishes.” Linda McMahon was tarnished by the whole steroids/wrongful death/WWF stuff, but not because she was CEO per se. I wouldn’t throw in the towel on businessmen just yet.
    FWIW, I will not be horrified Romney’s “job creation” record or whatever else comes out of Bain Capital, short of something illegal or completely distasteful. This is part because, like you, I understand that firms like Bain Capital are necessary and also part because it’s silly to think that someone’s business “job creation” record has anything to do with enacting economic policies. I doubt I’m alone among swing voters.
    Conservatives can simply stress the fact that Romney has significant business experience and knows how businesses operate, and they can bang that drum all day without violating their principles.

  6. I don’t believe we’ll have to compromise as much as our host does. What I am sure of is 1) we’d have had to cpmpromise a lot with any of the candidates offered and 2) that whenever we find ourselves doing so we’ll curse the damned RINOs who backed Romney.
    I can’t believe otherwise sophisticated thinkers can look in disdain at Romney and then wishcast some scenario where a flawless candidate brings about the Right-Wing Renaissance. We have to put some trust in somebody at some point and we need to have some credibility left to ensure they are beholden to the Right.
    This isn’t to say the criticism of Romney needs to stop or anything like that. But among the Right, I see the kind of bet-hedging that says “We’re off the bus at the first bump!” Well, then you’re not going to make the trip, so why should Romney care about you? Why shouldn’t he play up to the mushy middle after he’s elected?

  7. The guy’s been running for president since 1994, taking time out long enough to have his picture taken with wads of cash falling out of his suit. The only time Mitt Romney ever took a real position on anything was to oppose the Contract With America.
    When John Kerry showed up at the Democrat National Convention in 2004, saluted, said “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” he was inviting a closer look at his record of military service. Swift boat veterans pointed out, among other things, that Kerry’s much-touted three purple hearts had to be reinstated to Kerry during the Carter administration. Mitt Romney’s chief credential, or so he tells us, aside from his mythical “electability” is his uber-expertise in the private sector economy. Well, that’s now being examined. How is it that Romney can carpet-bomb his primary opponents, most notably the 3.5 million dollars he spent–in Iowa alone–on negative campaign ads–targeted at Newt “let’s take the high road and concentrate our fire on Obama” Gingrich, but any response in kind is “helping Obama’s re-election”? Is Mitt on a 3rd grade playground, calling “no tap-backs”? Mitt Romney is a guaranteed loss to a vulnerable incumbent and the end of America as we know it. Somebody better step up their game, or enter the race, or force a brokered convention, because this guy is a disaster.

  8. As we consider whom to primary in Congress, especially since we might as well admit we’re going to face a Romney presidency, the idea is to go after all those who will not stay on the rightmost edge of electability within their own district. Once Congresscritters understand that the home folks are watching, they will stay in better control.
    After that, and after repealing the Obama presidency in toto, stay away from big sudden massive changes. Don’t surprise people and don’t ram stuff down the voters throats. Build trust with the voters over time, that way. Most importantly, push for term limits in Congress (I support ten years in the House and twelve years in the Senate). That one issue is one we can push through in the early days of the next Congress and send on to the states for consideration, and it’ll unify Dems/Repubs/Occupyers and Paulians to our cause. After these sorts of changes, Romney as president wouldn’t scare me so much.

  9. Even the credible threat of a primary can have salutary effects. Look at Orrin Hatch. AFP just put out a scorecard that gave him a 100% rating. Hatch is sort of the classic example of a guy who came to DC as a good conservative but has become part of the furniture. But it’s clear right now that he’s awakened to the danger of a primary (or, in his case, convention) challenger, so he’s being extra careful. Accountability is a wonderful thing.

  10. One comment about Mr. Romney’s “fire your insurance company” remark: the issue is that, in most cases (pregnancies being an exception) you really don’t find out that your insurance company is doing a bad job until you get sick. In that case, you have the dreaded pre-existing condition and therefore become unprofitable to insure. Most of us aren’t multimillionaires (or the offspring of such) and don’t have the luxury of having our pick of companies once we found out ours was doing a bad job.
    That aspect is what I think is damaging to Mr. Romney.

  11. Ollie,
    Back in the day when this blog was more active you likely would have shouted down for being a supporter of socialized medicine and clearly in favor of death panels.

  12. If you have insurance through your employer, they typically offer more than one insurance company, and they have open enrollment periods where you can switch without disclosing medical conditions. So, you can, in many cases, fire your insurance company, even with a preexisting condition.
    Obviously, this won’t apply to businesses that don’t offer medical insurance.

  13. Well, even if you are laid off, if your next employer offers insurance, it is often an open enrollment where your preexisting condition isn’t an issue. Again, this assumes that your next employer offers insurance.

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