GOP presidential candidates listen more to employers than employees

August 25, 2011

Mitt Romney is campaigning to be the jobs president, and for now, that means a lot of listening.

Listening at board table after board table to his invited attendees bemoan what’s wrong with the federal government.

Invariably, they tell Romney to cut taxes and do away with Dodd-Frank financial regulations, environmental restrictions and President Obama’s health-care law. As the conversation moved around a stately room here Wednesday, Romney first heard from a community bank chief executive. Then an optometrist. Then another community bank chief executive, a fly-fishing company owner, an auto-repair shop owner, a gun-manufacturing executive, a restaurant owner and a cabinet company owner.

By the time the 50-minute session was over, Romney hadn’t heard from anyone who is unemployed, underemployed or simply clocks in for a working wage every day.

The scene isn’t much different with the other leading Republican candidates. The politicians hoping to replace President Obama are crafting jobs plans based in part on what they hear from the American people, but these sessions raise an important question: which American people are they listening to?

Republican strategist Ron Bon­jean, who is neutral in the race, said no candidate so far “truly identifies with the woes and has channeled the anxieties of voters.”

The contenders in the GOP field appear to be spending most of their time with those they think could be the solution to the country’s economic hardship (business owners) rather than those who are most directly experiencing the hardship (people out of work).

To be sure, they all interact with a cross-section of the public when they visit diners, stroll along downtown Main Streets or host town hall meetings.

But in their most intimate campaign settings, when they actually chew over economic policy and solicit comments rather than questions, the candidates usually hear from the employers, not the workers.

It’s not as if the candidates are trying to hide their bias. To them, job growth starts with loosening government regulations that, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently put it, “are strangling this country’s entrepreneurs.”

“I am a pro-business governor and I don’t make any apologies to anybody about it,” Perry told a breakfast crowd last week in Florence, S.C. “I’m going to be a pro-business president and I won’t make any apologies about it.”

This is a well-received feature in Romney’s stump speech, too.

“I believe in free enterprise and capitalism,” Romney said Wednesday at a town hall meeting in Keene, N.H. “I know there are people that don’t like business. I like business.”

Given the deep-seated economic anxiety across the country, they may need to do more than just be pro-business. “Every Republican is trying to find the silver bullet on job creation,” Bonjean said. “They need to talk to business leaders, but . . . now what they have to do is have Main Street conversations with people who have been laid off.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has done relatively few sessions about the economy. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. has toured several manufacturing facilities. At his business roundtable sessions, at­tendees have said they feel overregulated, overtaxed and uncertain about how the health-care overhaul will affect their profit margins.

Romney has sprinkled some events with struggling Americans throughout his itinerary. In April, before he was an official candidate, Romney toured a neighborhood outside of Las Vegas with an unusually high foreclosure rate. Twice this spring, he met with groups of college students worried about getting a job. He visited the emptied-out office of Packy Campbell’s New Hampshire real estate firm, which during the recession downsized from 35 employees to just Campbell and his wife.

And in June, Romney met with a group of unemployed people at a Tampa coffee shop, telling them, “I wish I had a job for everybody.” It was there that he joked about his own predicament, saying: “I’m also unemployed.”

But it’s the “business roundtable” that has become a staple of Romney’s summer schedule.

Around the table Wednesday in Claremont, when his turn came, Tom Sullivan, vice president of operations at gun manufacturer Sturm Ruger, said his company employs 900 people in New Hampshire. “Fortunately,” he said, “business has been great for us.” But he complained that the costs of health care are rising too fast.

“Insurance companies are broken,” Sullivan told Romney. “We need tort reform because that’s what’s driving a lot of the increased cost for physicians, the hospitals — and, like you said, we need to introduce competition one way or another so that when I go shopping for medical care, I can make a good decision.”

At that, Romney said, “I totally agree.”

“Gave my speech,” Romney said, gesturing as if he were getting up from his chair. “Let’s go.”

The bankers and business owners sitting around the table laughed. And Romney soon turned to hear from the next person down the line, a local restaurant owner.

Staff writers Nia-Malika Henderson, Sandhya Somashekhar and Krissah Thompson in Washington and Amy Gardner in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.

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