Mitt Romney’s win in the New Hampshire primary makes his nomination almost inevitable. I say, fine, let’s get to it.
I know, political writers are supposed to root for a long, drawn out nomination fight. But the general election is shaping up as a dramatic clash not just of candidates but also of worldviews. We got a pretty good preview of it this week, as Romney’s history at Bain Capital became the focus of attention.
Romney has made his private sector experience the centerpiece of his campaign, casting himself as a capable manager and, more recently, as a defender of free enterprise. But this week that experience became a political liability, when critics pointed out that Bain frequently downsized the companies it acquired – when Romney himself, in an unscripted moment, suggested he likes “firing people.”
The attacks on Romney were in many ways dishonest. The fact that Bain sometimes laid off workers does not, by itself, mean that Romney destroyed jobs: The dismantling of poorly performing companies is a natural, if painful, part of capitalism. And, as noted here previously, Romney’s infamous quote was really about his vision of a health care system – one in which, according to Romney, people had more freedom to switch insurance companies.
Of course, the attacks on Romney were no more dishonest than the arguments Romney had been making on his own behalf. Romney was the one who first suggested his tenure at Bain helped create 100,000 jobs, a claim as unsupportable as the one critics were making. And Romney's plans for the health care system would arguably mean fewer choices and less competition. And so perhaps it was poetic justice that the most effective attacks on Romney's record came from the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum – whose fealty to right-wing economic doctrine is, if anything, stronger than Romney’s.
They can make this attack stick because they have a more natural affinity with less affluent Republican voters to whom, I presume, those messages make the most sense. And, who knows, it's possible that Gingrich, Perry, or Santorum will manage to give Romney a serious challenge in South Carolina. But precisely because these three Republicans subscribe to the same bedrock beliefs that Romney holds, or at least claims to hold, they do not offer an actual substantive alternative.
President Obama does. He is not a socialist or a neo-socialist or even a Europeanist (although, as I’ve mentioned on a few occasions, we could do worse than to import sensible ideas like work-sharing, which has helped keep German unemployment below 7 percent). Obama also does not believe in mandating equal outcomes, as Romney frequently suggests. But Obama does believe in guaranteeing equal opportunity – and that the economy, as currently structured and regulated, will not do that.
That is why Obama signed health care reform, to protect Americans from crippling medical bills, and financial reform, to protect Americans from predatory lenders. Going forward, it’s why Obama is pushing to tilt the tax code, so that the wealthy pay more, while protecting existing programs (Medicare and Social Security) that protect elderly and disabled Americans from falling into poverty.
This is not the radical agenda Romney would have you believe. It is merely a liberal agenda, and a moderately liberal one at that. But Romney has committed himself to overturning it. He's proposing to scale back regulation, reduce taxes on the wealthy, severely limit the federal government's resources, repeal the Affordable Care Act and chip away at Medicare.
Is this the kind of country most Americans want? I think it's about time we find out.