We’re far down the rabbit hole of primary season right now, and that inevitably means that charges and counter-charges are flying so fast that the news cycle can change dramatically from morning to afternoon. Naturally, when things are moving this quickly and emotions are running high, people get carried away. This happens to everyone. A lot of people who sit on the sidelines are too quick to say, “oh, so-and-so totally lost credibility with me by making that argument.” But candidates and pundits in particular are making arguments all day long, day after day; they’re going to grab hold now and then of a story they should know better than to believe or an argument they should know better than to make. Like anything in life, the test of character is not the occasional stumble but the long sweep of your record over time – whether you back off when you’ve dug into an untenable position, whether you learn from mistakes.
This comes to mind with yesterday’s confluence of attacks on Mitt Romney‘s business record at Bain Capital and his ill-timed quip that “I like to be able to fire people.” To varying extents, the Gingrich and Perry campaigns and their supporters jumped all over him on both counts. A pro-Newt SuperPAC is rolling out a 27-minute documentary attacking Romney’s Bain record; as Erick notes, Perry’s campaign has been pushing a more modest line of attack against the Bain record, but still one that has something of a whiff of desperation about it. Perry’s camp also pushed a downloadable ringtone of Romney’s “fire” line. With time and some context, both campaigns backed off hitting Mitt on the “fire” comment: Perry’s people pulled the ringtone, and Newt told Fox News that the line had been taken out of context.
The “fire” comment is the easier call. Romney was making a completely valid point: that people should be able to fire service providers like insurance companies if they’re not getting good service. That’s one of the pro-consumer aspects of the conservative message, and where we part company from liberals who think first of protecting entrenched interests at the expense of consumer choice. That being said, the comment fed directly into the most damaging narratives about Romney, and was emblematic of how he’s much like Rick Santorum in terms of his tendency to use cringe-inducingly tin-eared language when he’s making even valid points.
The Bain storyline is a little more complicated, in part because there are a lot of angles to Bain’s business; while Romney’s record, as Jim Pethokoukis notes, includes a lot to be proud of, as Jonathan Last notes, you don’t have to necessarily take that business record as a whole if there are aspects worth defending and aspects worth criticizing.
A fair amount of what businesses like Bain do is to step in and take over businesses that are in bad shape. We have an ongoing debate in this country about what to do with failing businesses, but denying they’re failing is not an option – either you shutter or restructure them or you prop them up, and that raises the question of who gets stuck with the bill for propping them up. One of the great scandals of the past 5 years, which has given rise to the Tea Party and to some extent the Occupy Wall Street movement as well, has been the extent to which the answer to that question has been the taxpayers.
So, I don’t like seeing pro-free-market Republicans attacking the concept of what Bain does, any more than I liked seeing Romney attack Rick Perry from the left on entitlements. But just because the role of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists is a crucial and necessary one does not mean that they are likely to be popular candidates in today’s general election environment. Criminal defense lawyers, for example may be crucially necessary to our system of justice, but if they have represented a lot of unpopular clients, they are not likely to be politically viable. I continue to think that Romney’s business record is an under-explored political vulnerability (one Ted Kennedy used against Romney in 1994, but didn’t even use all the ads he cut) that the Democrats will exploit ruthlessly. And Romney’s existing defenses of that record are fairly weak. We should not be caught unawares by this in the summer and fall when it’s too late to pick another candidate. In many ways, it’s like the swift boat story. You’ll recall that the centerpiece of John Kerry’s electability argument in 2004 was his military record – not any policy proposal on national security, mind you, but the simple fact of his biography as a war hero. Given that Kerry had decades-old enemies from his activties as an anti-war protestor, it was unwise for Democrats to assume that this biographical narrative alone would go unchallenged in the general election. But that’s exactly what they did, and the Swift Boat Veterans’ ads (especially the ads using Kerry’s own Senate testimony from 1970) did terrible damage to Kerry.
Romney’s story is much the same. There’s no serious argument that Romney’s record of supporting free enterprise and job growth in his single term as Massachusetts governor is better than the records of Perry, Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman; his claim to be a job creation specialist is grounded in his record at Bain, and just like Kerry’s war hero biography, this claim is bound to attract scrutiny. It would be foolishness in the extreme for Republicans to demand that nobody talk about this during the time when we’re choosing a candidate. The harder question, for free-market Republicans, is how to have a serious debate on this point without compromising our integrity and our principles.
The fear that Bain, and Romney’s wealth (by birth as well as his business wealth) will be a political liability is hardly fanciful. Look back over the years at the list of wealthy Republican candidates who put their wealth ahead of their limited records in public office. The California GOP has had the worst record: Bill Simon, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Michael Huffington, and Bruce Herschensohn all flopped. The positive example is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proved a disaster for California conservatives in office. Simon, a good and decent man and fairly conservative, faced an opponent with approval ratings so terrible on Election Day that he was recalled just months later – yet the Democrats tore Simon limb from limb with attacks on his private business record. Republicans in other states or at the national level have often found such candidates to be electoral failures or totally unreliable in pursuing our party’s principles in office: Herman Cain, Mike Bloomberg, Carl Paladino, Linda McMahon, Jack Ryan, Pete Coors, Pete Dawkins. (Ron Johnson and Rick Scott being rare exceptions, and Scott only won after a searing campaign against his business record). An understanding of private business is a valuable thing for public officials, but it’s no substitute for experience pursuing good public policies; Jon Corzine was a success in business before he ran New Jersey into the ground, and the most successful businessman ever to be president was Herbert Hoover. It’s entirely valid for Republicans to ask whether we are buying ourselves a similar set of headaches with Romney.
The other point I would make about integrity is that it goes close to the core of why a Romney nomination worries me so much: because we would all have to make so many compromises to defend him that at the end of the day we may not even recognize ourselves. Romney has, in a career in public office of just four years (plus about 8 years’ worth of campaigning), changed his position on just about every major issue you can think of, and his signature accomplishment in office was to be wrong on the largest policy issue of this campaign. Yes, Obama is bad, and Romney can be defended on the grounds that he can’t possibly be worse. Yes, Romney is personally a good man, a success in business, faith and family. But aside from his business biography, his primary campaign has been built entirely on arguments and strategies – about touting his own electability and dividing, coopting or delegitimizing other Republicans – none of which will be of any use in the general election. What, then, will we as politically active Republicans say about him? I was not a huge fan of John McCain’s record, but I was comfortable making honest points about the things McCain had been consistent on over the years – national security, free trade, nuclear power, public integrity, pork-barrel spending. There were spots of solid ground on which to plant ourselves with McCain, and he had a history of digging himself in on those and fighting for things he believed in. But Mitt Romney’s record is just one endless sheet of thin ice as far as the eye can see – there’s no way to have any kind of confidence that we can tell people he stands for something today without being made fools of tomorrow. We who have laughed along with Jim Geraghty’s prescient point that every Obama promise comes with an expiration date will be the ones laughed at, and worse yet we will know the critics are right. Every time I try to talk myself into thinking we can live with him, I run into this problem. It’s one that particularly bedeviled Republicans during the Nixon years – many partisan Republicans loved Nixon because he made the right enemies and fought them without cease or mercy, but the man’s actual policies compromised so many of our principles that the party was crippled in the process even before Watergate. We can stand for Romney, but we’ll find soon enough that that’s all we stand for.
The problem is not entirely without its solutions; one of those is that the only real mechanism conservatives would have for keeping Romney honest is to pour efforts into getting more conservatives elected in the House and Senate, and in particular targeting primary challenges at people who have supported Romney. But that’s a desperate measure, and it still doesn’t answer the question of how we make the affirmative case for Romney without losing our integrity. Which is precisely why we need a hard look now at what we’re getting in return.