The Romney/Ryan presidential tandem continues the GOP’s half-century mix of “culture war” and economic issues. Some Republicans—Bachmann, Huckabee, and Santorum—emphasize “culture war” issues—examples: drugs, abortion, contraception, gays in the military, and same-sex marriage—which are important to many people and may have more immediate effects on their lives than other issues do. I do not regard them as trivial by comparison to the economic and financial issues which almost everyone agrees are critical, but do not think that the concern, say, of the undead for the condition of the unborn constitutes an existential threat to the American way of life.
Almost everyone thought that the 2012 presidential election would turn on economic and financial issues, but they have not yet received either extended attention or honest discussion. If Romney and Ryan urge a backward-looking, finger-pointing referendum on Obama’s record in office, the public will remember that much of it resulted from what Congress did or failed to do. In Obama’s first two years, Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House passed major legislation; since then, Senate Republicans have filibustered, or the House Republican majority has refused to pass, major economic, notably job-creating, legislation. Although Obama’s naïve efforts to effect bipartisanship legislation and his few efforts to persuade the public of the merits of his legislative proposals have proved ineffectual, the public credits him with trying to address the country’s economy and peoples’ fears. The popularity of Obama and the unpopularity of Congress testify to the public’s allocation of blame.
By contrast with Obama, who has been the central public figure for over three years and is well known and liked, Romney remains a mystery, and Ryan is an unknown, though both have been public figures for years. Obviously, to dispel public ignorance, they have stories to tell and records to disclose—both of which Democrats question for accuracy. Early on, Romney touted his business experience at Bain Capital as his prime qualification for the presidency during the doldrums of a lackluster recovery from a severe recession striking a year before Obama’s election. Romney has every right to tout his success in saving businesses and creating jobs. But he should have known that every story has two sides, that he could tell his side, and that others would tell theirs. He assumed, apparently out of arrogance derived from living in elite social, financial, and political circles, that his story was exempt from challenge. For he was unprepared for another story scrutinizing his record and showing that he did not create additional jobs and moved existing jobs overseas. His story discredited, Romney distanced himself from it.
The public will learn even less from Ryan, who has lived a life as an officeholder and who, as lifetime politicians often do, repeatedly misrepresents his records and his views, and dodges responsibility. Example: in legislation which he drafted, Ryan inserted the phrase “forcible rape”; it is not, as he now dissembles, a term of legislative boilerplate. Example: Ryan slapped Obama for not supporting the Bowles-Simpson budget, but skipped hypocritically over his commission vote against it. Example: using the Big-Lie technique in his convention speech, Ryan repeated the false charge that Obama took $716 billion in benefits from Medicare and spent them on the Affordable Care Act, when Obama took savings from doctor and hospital overcharges, and applied them to Medicare beneficiaries. Example: Ryan declared that Romney and he would deal with the tough issues, but he ducked any details—too many Devils in them, all unpopular with the public—like his voucher plan for Medicare. Easier for Ryan to talk about making tough decisions adversely affecting other people than for them to live with the consequences.
The second side of the story harps on the human-interest side of the consequences of Romney’s leadership of Bain Capital—the heartache, the hurt, the dashed dreams and lost opportunities of fired employees, their families, and their communities. But this side of the story, however grievous, misses the larger point bearing on the election. It misses the similarity of the Romney’s approach to business and his approach to government. In a few words, dismantle, discontinue, and downsize; not rebuild, reinvest, and restore—all in the interest of the few at the top, not the many at the bottom.
Romney’s success, which Republican Texas governor Rick Perry harshly described as “vulture capitalism,” instances the capitalistic theory of “creative destruction,” a “survival-of-the-fittest” view of free-market evolution. Romney’s chop-shop business experience is a record of dismantling faltering businesses or deporting them or their jobs. Thus, in criticizing TARP, he implies that he would have let Wall Street firms fail. In criticizing the bailout and urging bankruptcy, he would have let America’s automobile industry fail. His likely approach to the problems of major government programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as well as public education—would be no different; in fact, he has already advocated steps to dismember or underfunding them by privatizing or voucherizing them, not to reform and restore them.
Romney’s practice of using large debt to prop up ailing companies before they fail in order to make profits for Bain Capital and himself incline him to increase national debt to artificially and temporarily prop up the economy for the benefit of the few at the cost to the many. This experience in Bain Capital’s financial and management practices is not transferable to the fundamental practices of non-financial commerce and industry. More important, his zero-sum approach to business success—Bain Capital and its stockholders win; companies and employees lose—is not an approach to address large and long-term national problems and achieve solutions in the national interest.
Yet this is Romney’s and Ryan’s approach: tax cuts which will benefit Romney, Ryan, and other millionaires, and either increase the national debt, increase taxes on the middle and lower classes, or increase costs compensating for cuts in government programs benefitting them the most. I cannot think of another presidential candidate who advocated tax cuts so dramatically benefitting himself, not to mention costing others. Increased taxes or costs will reduce middle- and lower-class disposable income, their demand for goods and services, and the jobs to provide or produce them—thereby perpetrating, if not worsening, the still-feeble economic recovery.
Ryan’s ideas are more drastic than Romney’s but no more sensible. Ryan’s voucher plan, his substitute for Medicare, would boost after-voucher health-care costs and have the same effect as higher taxes or compensatory costs. Whatever one thinks of Ryan as a budgetary whiz kid, he can be no real help. He has no business experience; indeed, he has spent more time reading Ayn Rand novels than earning a living outside government. The result will be similar to the results of Romney’s exploitive operations: the rich, like Bain Capital’s officers and shareholders, will get richer, and the middle and lower classes, like the employees of shrunken or shuttered companies, will lose income or jobs.
CEO’s may not care about company employees, but presidents must care about this country’s citizens. Most troublesome about Romney is not that he is a rich man—we have had rich presidents: the Roosevelts, John Kennedy, and the Bushes come to mind—but that he lacks that empathy which comes of experience with people in other walks of life. All except Bush 43 had significant experience with people from different and less advantaged walks of life. They knew and learned, as they were taught, to empathize with and respect and serve those who had less.
A story about Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife, advisor, and well-known social activist on behalf of the downtrodden, makes this point. On a trip through California’s agricultural heartland, she saw some migrant workers taking a break; she stopped the car, got out, and approached the men to talk with them. One rose and greeted her, “So, Mrs. Roosevelt, you’ve come to see us at last.” The sense of personal worth felt by these men at her attention to and concern for them—there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like this moment in Romney’s business or religious life.
On the contrary, Romney’s life—who knows about his wife’s?—suggests a lack of concern or empathy for those unlike him. Four instances are telling: Two early instances are his adolescent bullying of an off-beat classmate at prep school and his abusive trick of pretending to hold open a door for a blind instructor and letting him walk into it. A midlife example is the now-famous episode of tying the family dog to a rooftop kennel for a 12-hour vacation trip, made even more revealing of his and his wife’s lack of empathy in their claim that Seamus enjoyed himself. A final example, one occurring and relevant in this campaign, is his callous statement that he likes to fire people.
Romney’s wife may show Romney personable in his marriage and family, but affection for his wife and children is not like empathy for others. Moreover, there is nothing in Mrs. Romney’s life like this story in Mrs. Roosevelt’s life. Mrs. Romney says she weeps when the Romneys tithe to the church, but whether she weeps in self-pity, self-satisfaction, or sentimentality, whichever, this story does not ring true. Even so, the Romneys’ checkbook charity gives them no history of experience with, or social activism connecting them to, ordinary people. They intuitively sense this lack of empathy and rightly see it as a serious deficiency in a prospective president of a democracy.
Romney and Ryan offer nostrums to national problems entirely consistent with cutthroat capitalist ideology untempered by experience with and empathy for those not like themselves. Cutting programs which constitute the “safety net” for people to live in dignity with modest means is not much different from cannibalizing companies and firing people. Reducing funding for education, as if education on the cheap can keep America competitive with economic rivals who are investing in education, dashes the basis for the hopes of many students and their parents for a better life. Reducing regulations, mainly environmental regulations, without regard for the consequences, not only dirtier air, water, and earth, but also the resulting diseases and disabilities, shows a disregard for peoples’ health or their greatly increased health care costs at a time of shrinking federal and state assistance, and of level or declining personal income.
None of Romney’s and Ryan’s nostrums—smaller government, less regulation, lower taxes—and slogans—freedom, choice, opportunities—can help America recover from its economic doldrums, much less rebuild it for this and future generations. Their Bain Capital strategy, which made money by closing companies or firing employees is no template to enrich and revitalize America, but to impoverish and deplete it. Their strategy will enable the rich to realize short-term benefits at long-term costs to all others. The reason why Romney offers no vision for America is that he does not have one for the country, only for his class—class warfare, indeed.
The question for voters does not point to the past, except as a guide to the future. It is a simple one: who is more likely to make the country and you better off at the end of the next four years? The answer is the candidate whose record reflects long service to “we the people” and whose character responds with empathy to their needs and hopes.