Politics

01.15.12

Why Mitt Romney Will Prove To Be a Feeble Presidential Nominee

Mitt’s getting hammered in the “King of Bain” attack ad, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Michael Tomasky on why Romney will be stunningly weak in November.

This weekend, social conservative leaders from around the country are gathering in Texas (where else?) to see if they can coalesce around a Mitt Romney alternative. That will wrap up Saturday. The next day, the Tea Party groups of South Carolina will convene in Myrtle Beach to, uh, see if they can coalesce around a Mitt Romney alternative. A week ago, all these people seemed like cranky sore losers. They’re still probably cranky sore losers, but one thing has changed: now that Romney is known as the King of Bain, their reservations about his electability don’t seem quite as crazy. In fact, they’re not crazy at all, because Romney is a stunningly weak candidate.

I started on this theme of Romney’s weaknesses last week when I wrote about his reactionary tax plan and his refusal to release his own taxes, and what an unfortunate (for him) cocktail those two ingredients will make for him. I then noted, after New Hampshire, how his victory speech was all wrong, and how easily rebuttable his arguments against Obama are. Now, the Bain attacks put into sharp relief another reason for his weakness. He has just one argument, and the Bain “creative destruction” narrative comes close to killing it.

Romney’s argument, of course, is that he has the know-how to fix the economy and put people to work. But as more and more people learn about what Bain did in private equity—the story will fade a bit now, but return with a roar this summer and fall—more and more people will come to realize the truth of the matter, which is that Bain wasn’t about creating jobs, it was about making investors who were usually already rich even richer. Jobs were sometimes created as a side effect, and they were sometimes destroyed as a side effect. But jobs were an ancillary consideration. Profit—for shareholders, yes, but mostly for Bain—was the idea.

Romney’s team has started its Bain pushback, and we’ll soon see gauzy testimonials from regular Americans who work at Staples and other places Bain helped. The "King of Bain" documentary has, of course, been seriously challenged, and the filmmakers incredibly used some stories that took place after Romney had left the firm. But there's still enough material in one or two of those stories to make for some wrenching ads that are bound to pack more emotional wallop. And they’ll resonate more because of who Romney is and how he comes across—his gaudy net worth, his difficulty connecting with people, all of that. In some ways, the most damning thing in that documentary is that he tore down a $12 million beach house in La Jolla because it was inadequate to his needs.

Toss in that ghastly remark about it being all right to discuss inequality in “quiet rooms,” which I feel certain we haven’t heard nearly the last of. Which quiet rooms did he mean? Not churches or funeral parlors. He meant corporate board rooms, where everyone would agree with him. An astonishingly frank moment, like the comment about liking to be able to fire people. I know he was talking about insurance companies, but here in the 99 percent, we don’t “fire” insurance companies, or usually doctors and certain other service professionals. We change them. It was a word choice that really did reveal a world view.

Is this really the man to make the case to middle America that he is their rescuer? It’s a joke. What Romney is depending on—the only thing that can elect him, really, along with I suppose a terrorist attack or some unforeseeable revelation or scandal—is a lousy economy. That can maybe elect him.

But let me pose this question. What if the economy is in pretty decent shape by the fall? The creation of 200,000 private-sector jobs in December is nothing to scoff at. In fact, Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, emailed me Monday morning in response to my question about the unemployment rate in this election year to say: “Based on the growth in the adult population, employment levels in Dec. 2011, and a couple of alternative assumptions about how fast the labor force will grow over the next 10 months, it appears to me than employment growth will have to average 155,000 to 170,000 over the next 10 months to hit” a jobless rate by Election Day of 8 percent. He cautions that the labor force participation rate (LFPR, explained here) could affect that a bit, requiring a somewhat higher number. Fair enough. But Burtless also told me in an earlier conversation that the LFPR rose over the last quarter of 2011, meaning more people participated in the work force and looked for jobs—which in turn means that “yeah, but people are taking themselves out of the labor market” is slowly becoming a smaller and smaller asterisk.

So—170,000 jobs a month? Consider this: We averaged 133,000 jobs per month in 2011, and the year gone by was certainly pretty crappy, especially the first seven or eight months of it. Is it insane to think we’ll average considerably better than that in 2012?

Romney is already a uniquely bad messenger for this particular year for the reasons laid out above. But if by Election Day we’ve been adding that many jobs a month every month for basically a year, Romney’s message will be irrelevant. Oh, he’ll get 47, 48 percent of the vote, because we’re a divided country, and he’ll take back a couple of states Obama picked off because of the singular historical circumstances of 2008. But a majority will not want to change horses, especially when the other horse is carrying Romney’s kind of personal baggage and is promising policies that are warmed over versions of the policies that created the economic crisis in the first place. I have no great confidence in the brilliance of Obama’s political team, but this should not be too hard, even for them, and Mitt can find himself a nice quiet room in La Jolla to go ponder the what-if’s.