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The Romney who might have 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.

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, the candidate who actually won the vast majority of 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.

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 a company 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 a 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 needed 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.

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 Rep. 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 that they’re sacrificing, too.

So alternate Romney would propose raising taxes on the rich.

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.

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