The parallels between Mitt Romney and his father, George — both businessmen, both Republican governors of blue states, both presidential candidates — make for tantalizing psychological comparisons. ¶ Is the younger Romney less concerned about economic fairness than was his late father, who helped create Michigan’s first income tax and famously returned a big bonus when he was chief executive of American Motors? Does Mitt’s cautious style reflect the bitter experience of George, whose 1968 presidential run collapsed after he used the term “brainwashing” to explain his early support for the Vietnam War?¶ Such speculation can certainly be entertaining for political junkies hoping to glimpse the soul of a would-be president. However, the contrast between father and son reveals less about Mitt Romney’s state of mind than it does about America’s. If Mitt has a tin ear for the concerns of the needy, if he goes along with, rather than resists, the rightward turn of his party, he is simply mirroring the disturbing transformations of American business and politics in recent decades. In his public and private careers, the younger Romney has emulated the retreat of corporate elites and the Republican Party from the model of economic partnership and cross-party compromise that the elder Romney exemplified. ¶ At a moment when America needs both business innovation and effective oversight, vigorous growth as well as economic fairness, we would be better off with George, rather than Mitt, in the White House.
The first transformation involves the connection between the economy and the government. During the GOP presidential contest, Mitt Romney’s business career has come under scrutiny. Yet that career, like his father’s, typified the business world of his time. Bain Capital pioneered a corporate model in which individual companies were commodities ripe for restructuring. Partly by exploiting legal opportunities in the tax code, Bain could scrape off enormous resources even if the affected companies failed. Financial wizards were the masters of this new world — the “job creators” who, according to Romney and other GOP standard-bearers, should be unshackled through deregulation and ever more lavish tax cuts.
George Romney inhabited a different world. His executive career took place within a single company, American Motors Corp. There, his success rested on the pursuit of more fuel-efficient cars to compete with the gas-guzzling “dinosaurs” (in Romney’s words) of AMC’s larger competitors. Like Bain, AMC was emblematic of its time. Rooted in the industrial Midwest, its corporate philosophy recognized the connections among workers, managers, shareholders and communities. Romney the elder dismissed the “rugged individualism” touted by conservatives as “nothing but a political banner to cover up greed.” Entrepreneurship was vital, but prosperity was not an individual product; it was generated within a community, through bargaining and compromises.
George Romney carried this understanding with him into politics. He was a proud Republican, stressing the importance of private initiative and worrying about the power of unions. He once famously called United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther “the most dangerous man in Detroit” — but then, characteristically, developed a good working relationship with him.
But the elder Romney also saw government as a powerful tool for generating broad-based prosperity. Elected governor in 1962 after helping lead a commission that updated Michigan’s Constitution to reduce gridlock, he broke with conservative Republicans and worked across party lines to establish a minimum wage, introduce the income tax, grant collective bargaining rights to public employees, significantly increase state education spending and develop more generous programs for the poor and the unemployed.
As governor and then as a presidential candidate, George Romney sought a party that reached toward the broad middle of American society. His allies were figures like New York’s Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who argued for an effective partnership between government and the private sector. His bête noire, as the historian Rick Perlstein documents in his 2008 book “Nixonland,” was the insurgent Arizona conservative Barry Goldwater. Romney supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act; Goldwater opposed it as a threat to states’ rights. Responding to Goldwater’s dictum that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” Romney countered that “dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.”
What happened next marked America’s second broad transformation. Goldwater lost the electoral battle of 1964 but won the larger political battle to remake the GOP as a thoroughly conservative party. The issue that had split the two men — civil rights — soon split Democrats and reinvigorated their opponents. Even more fateful for Romney’s vision, Goldwater’s libertarianism became the lodestar for an economic agenda centered on tax cuts, deregulation and hostility toward both government and organized labor. Ronald Reagan, who sided with Goldwater, rejected Romney’s model of industrial partnership and political moderation, marking out the rightward path his party continues to take.
When George Romney sparred with Goldwater, the Arizona senator was an ideological outlier. The average Senate Republican then was roughly as conservative as Indiana’s Richard Lugar is today. Now, though, Lugar is one of the few remaining GOP moderates, which makes him a prominent target for the party’s emboldened conservative base. According to an analysis of roll-call votes, the GOP has moved dramatically away from the center on economic policy since the early 1970s, with the House making a greater shift than the Senate. And, yes, the ideological swing has been larger for Republicans than for Democrats. The biggest reason that the bipartisan political world of George Romney has vanished is the long-term movement of the Republican Party to the right.
The legacies are everywhere. When a prominent GOP senator describes President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package as the worst economic legislation since the creation of the income tax; when every Republican candidate, including Mitt Romney, scorns a budget deal with a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases; when the Republican House leader channels Ayn Rand in declaring that America’s “job creators are on strike”; when Romney dismisses concerns about growing inequality and the behavior of Wall Street as “envy”; the distance between contemporary Republican ideals and the vision of George Romney becomes plain.
Today, Mitt Romney calls for the repeal of new financial regulations and champions even greater tax cuts for the very rich (his plan would extend the Bush tax cuts and then add new cuts, most of which would benefit the top 1 percent). That’s considered unremarkable only because Romney’s tax and budget proposals are either identical to or more moderate than those of his GOP opponents and Republican leaders in Congress.
American Motors is long gone, of course, swallowed up by larger and more globally oriented firms. So too is the GOP of Rockefeller and Romney, plowed under Southern soils by the hard-edged conservatism of Sunbelt activists and the insistent demands of business lobbyists. The clock cannot be turned back.
Yet this does not mean that all the institutions and ideals that shaped George Romney’s career lie irretrievably in our past. At a time when many corporate leaders — and most of the GOP — seem to reject categorically an economic vision based on shared sacrifices and mutual gains, it is worth recalling that business and Republican leaders once publicly recognized that a strong social foundation for economic expansion required a prominent role for government.
In a Republican debate last month, CNN’s John King brought up George Romney’s decision to release 12years’ worth of his tax returns during his presidential campaign. King then challenged Mitt Romney: “Will you follow your father’s example?”
It would be too much to ask for a George Romney today. But it would not be too much to ask for an agenda for economic and political reform that recaptured some of the most valuable elements of his career: an emphasis on compromise, a commitment to public education and the expansion of economic opportunity, a belief that workers deserve a voice and that a thriving capitalism must seek to align individual success with shared prosperity. This is certainly an example worth following. Sadly, everything in Mitt Romney’s public and private careers suggests he is unlikely to follow it.
Jacob S. Hacker is the Stanley B. Resor professor of political science and director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. Paul Pierson is the John Gross professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. They are the authors of “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.”