Perhaps because the presidential campaign is enjoying a rare slow period — Obama tending to NATO; Romney vacuuming cash to make up his deficit — that the Bain-Booker kerfuffle is now entering its third news cycle.
At first, this seemed like a minor win for Romney — Obama supporter and Newark Mayor Cory Booker loudly defending Bain Capital and calling for an end to negative attacks on private equity, and then, in a scene reminiscent of the old Soviet Union, emerging from a brief reeducation session and confessing his “mistake.” Good, fair fun for the Republicans.
But then the president himself weighed in on the controversy and offered a perspective less enticing to the Republicans. As usual, Obama was able to frame what this debate is all about in a way that lifts it from the trivial to something of greater significance.
“When you are president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm,” Obama said, “then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. Your job is to think about those workers who get laid off and how are we paying for their retraining.”
This is a much more intelligent argument than “private equity is good! Or bad!” This is taking the conversation to a broader distinction between maximizing investor — or shareholder — profits and running a national economy where profits are essential, but not the only goal.
There is an attractive bromide in politics that we ought to run the government like a business. That's true, but only to a point. We need higher performance standards, much greater accountability and much more “disruptive” innovation. But we also need a government that not only operates with greater efficiency but with compassion as well.
That is the missing element in Mitt Romney's credential as a businessman.