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.