July 6, 2012

Mitt Romney is betraying his calling.

He brings to the presidential race a record of accomplishment to which few White House contenders can lay claim: W. Mitt Romney knows how to make money.

Some may argue that a money-making ability alone is no qualification to be president. I agree that having a high net worth is insufficient reason to be declared presidential timber.

But attaining a personal fortune of as much as $250 million, as Romney has done — and not through inheritance or grand theft — is a testament to creative abilities, a strong work ethic, a focused mind and keen understanding of the economic environment.

Romney, however, is blowing it by seeking to appeal to the average voter by selling himself as something he’s not. He also is running away from the opportunity to show voters that he, above all other candidates, knows how Americans can reap a better return on the investments they are making of time, energy and talent in our country.

For the record, and as regular readers of this column know, I regard the political and moral priorities of the current White House occupant to be more in tune with my own. That said, Romney, by reason of experience, has a legitimate claim on the presidency.

A year ago, I said on the TV program “Inside Washington” that Romney understands how the economy works and that he should use the campaign to explain the private sector’s critical role. That point didn’t go down well with some of my liberal friends. Maybe it’s because I was wearing my banker’s hat at the time. Ten years as a commercial banker and bank director were more than enough time to convince me that a thriving business sector is key to economic growth and expanding opportunity. Romney, I believed last year, was well suited to make that case.

Instead, he has made a mess of it, misrepresenting his history and shying away from the truth, apparently out of fear that by sticking up for the country’s privately owned enterprises he will be portrayed as a heartless, money-grubbing capitalist and scourge of the poor. Of course, in this political climate, that might happen anyway. Still, there’s no reason to dissemble.

That’s the only way to describe Romney’s suggestion that job creation was the motivating force behind his work in the private sector. Beyond the question of whether Romney created 100,000 jobs — as he has claimed — is his implicit buy-in to the argument that the private sector’s purpose is to produce jobs.

Romney knows better, even if his critics don’t. The private sector operates to make profits, not jobs.

True, a majority of Americans work in the private sector. But General Motors, Giant Food, the TV networks and others don’t exist in order to employ Americans.

General Motors sells cars, Giant sells food and the networks sell entertainment to make a profit for their owners and investors.

Without question, a payroll is a necessary ingredient in building and selling vehicles, groceries and entertainment.

But owners, regardless of industries, are obligated to control costs. The fewer workers they employ, the better.

Romney portraying himself as an entrepreneur who altruistically created employment opportunities is not only incorrect but also conveys a false picture of free enterprise. That, in turn, skews public understanding of what the private sector can and can’t do; creating a more equitable and just society is one of the things businesses don’t set out to do. Romney seems ashamed of touting financial performance as an essential factor in economic growth, choosing instead to come across as a one-man hiring hall.

The pander is apparent in other ways. Take the Obama campaign’s charge that the private equity firm co-founded by Romney, Bain Capital, “invested in companies that moved jobs overseas.” The Romney camp responds by touting the former governor’s “record of job creation in the private sector.”

What clumsiness, if not cowardice.

There is nothing wrong with a company legally outsourcing jobs domestically or even sending jobs offshore if the effort allows the company to reduce its costs and operate more economically.

In this globalized economy, America must adjust to competitive forces. Certainly there are costs and downsides that come with outsourcing and offshoring jobs. That is not at issue. Change is constant. Workforce adjustments must be made. Government has a role to play. But adapting to competition at home and abroad is mandatory if we are to survive economically.

Romney, more than most, knows better, and he won’t touch this reality.

He betrays his calling because he’s willing to say — and be — all things to become president.

kingc@washpost.com