When last we left our heroes, the 2012 Republican Presidential challengers, they were inevitably folding to Mitt the Man Whose Turn It Is. Then Newt Gingrich — or, excuse us, a Newt Gingrich Super-PAC to which he is not connected — decided to go out swinging with a little film that portrayed Romney’s early career at Bain Capital as an example of capitalism run amok.
While some of the brethren defended Romney against the charges, others skipped the middleman and instead defended capitalism run amok.
The film, When Mitt Romney Came to Town (aka King of Bain) shows some folks whose livelihoods disappeared after Romney and Bain Capital got their hands on them.
The film makes Michael Moore look like Eric Rohmer, and many sources have poked holes in its assertions. Interestingly, some of these are sources the right wing loves to hate, including the Washington Post — the Death Star of the MSM! — (“Four Pinocchios for ‘King of Bain'”) and New York magazine (“Gingrich Swift Boats Romney”).
Thus conservatives found their least conservative candidate being attacked for his rapacious capitalism by… Newt Gingrich. Naturally it caused a sensation.
The brethren had reason to be nervous for their nominee-to-be. Because, let’s face it, no normal human being likes people who do what the Bainsters did for a living. Ivan Boesky, David Levine, Ron Perelman, Carl Icahn, Paul Bilzerian — such characters are about as respected as their movie avatar, Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko, and not nearly as quoteworthy.
Also, quite a few Americans have experienced the “creative destruction” of such characters first hand — like this guy: “That company went through three sets corporate raiders before they finally closed the doors and send the jobs to China. The telemarketing company where I work now just went through its second buy-out in the three years…” Such people may not like Obama, but they’re unlikely to warm up to the former CEO of Bain Capital.
When the film broke, even some reliable capitalism defenders got kind of squishy about it. “Private-equity firms have been called barbarians… They also have been praised for improving weak businesses… Industry participants–and some critics–say there is truth to both perspectives,” mush-mouthed the Wall Street Journal. The spectacle of the ruthless, fuck-the-poor WSJ scrounging for positive corporate raider anecdotes and regretfully announcing that sometimes these misunderstood heroes “failed to improve operations quickly enough to turn the company around” (rather like doctors who reluctantly stop massaging a dead patient’s heart) shows how hot the movie made things for a half-minute there.
It got so bad that some rightbloggers rushed to disseminate a Romney defense by…. Steve Rattner, Obama’s car bailout guy. And Romney himself started handing out money on ropelines. Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic was moved to ask, “Since When Do Republicans Hate Corporate Raiders?” Listen, if their own mothers became a political liability, we’re sure they’d denounce them, too.
But after a moment of shock, even rightbloggers who were not Romney’s biggest fans stepped up to defend the rapacious form of hypercapitalism he had suddenly come to stand for.
At the New York Times, Ross Douthat sneered that Romney’s Republican opponents “sound as if they’re auditioning for a production of ‘Les Misérables,'” and laid out his defense of corporate raidership. As the post-WWII boom wound down, said Douthat, “American policy makers, C.E.O.’s and investors responded by changing their priorities — privileging growth over security, efficiency over equality, and embracing creative destruction on a scale that would have been unthinkable in the America of 1955. In the private sector, this revolution was driven by men like Mitt Romney.”
Thus we lost the one-earner household, lifetime employment, and good pensions, but we got iPads and brokers eating sushi off naked women. Douthat presented this as progress. While “overheated critics” focused on the people who got fired after Bain devoured their companies, Douthat insisted that “the competitiveness revolution was good for the United States.” For instance, Douthat told readers, America is 20 percent richer than Germany, which foolishly gives its citizens health care and a Termination Protection Act instead of pitting them against one another like maddened roosters in a cockfighting pit. America wins!
Still, Douthat admitted asset stripping isn’t an “unmitigated good” and that Romney “needs to prove to anxious voters that he and his party have more to offer them than just Bain capitalism alone.” Alone! What can Romney add to yummy Bain capitalism that will make it even tastier? “Growth that leads to broadly shared prosperity,” said Douthat. Just stick with that corporate raider thing, in other words, but make sure a few other people get some of it too. (Maybe a bigger Board of Directors? Have your people sketch something out.)
Larry Kudlow, host of CNBC’s The Kudlow Report, went further, telling readers that Romney’s medicine was just what this country needed.
“There’s a very troubled company out there called U.S. Government Inc. It’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. And it badly needs to be taken over and turned around. It probably even needs the services of a good private-equity firm…”
It sounds like a parody of the close of Gordon Gekko’s famous speech (“And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA”), but Kudlow was in earnest:
“Yes, layoffs will be a necessary part of the restructuring,” Kudlow continued. “…Worldwide employment for U.S. Government Inc. is estimated to be over 2 million, a completely unmanageable number for a venture like this.” Apparently not enough of us have lost our jobs yet, and America Inc won’t be successful until we have.
The solution, said Kudlow, is “a highly regarded private-equity operation located in Boston that has a good (but not perfect) track record in turning around hopeless ventures… Isn’t a Bainful turnaround exactly what America needs?” The ship of state may be righted after all, as soon as it has dispensed with the deadwood — which, we hardly need add, would not include such vital resources as the host of CNBC’s The Kudlow Report.
“Of course, Romney and Bain weren’t in the game to create jobs,” said James Pethokoukis at the Enterprise Blog. “They were in it to make money for their investors and themselves. Then again, the same would go for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Warren Buffett, and just about every other successful entrepreneur and investor you could name. But that is the miracle of free-market capitalism.” So if it weren’t for guys like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and Mitt Romney, you wouldn’t have personal computers.
Doug Mataconis also compared the corporate restructuring artist to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates but, perhaps sensing that his readers might not go for it, bade us consider the alternatives to Bain’s strong medicine.
“What’s important to remember, though,” said Mataconis, “is that if it weren’t for investors like the people who were part of Bain, none of those companies would have likely survived much longer and all of the people who worked for them would have been out of work… Yes, the restructuring is a risk, but if that risk isn’t taken then it’s quite likely that there would be nothing left and even more people would be hurt.”
To accept this logic “involves accepting what Bastiat called the idea of the seen and the unseen,” said Mataconis — or, if that’s too esoteric for you, the Butterfly Effect: If that guy hadn’t mugged you, you might have walked straight into the path of an oncoming car. Mataconis accepted that some people might not get it: “It’s far easier to empathize with the workers featured in the video embedded above,” he sighed, “than to wrap ones brain around the idea of creative destruction and accept the fact that progress often means temporary loss.” Maybe someday humans will evolve to the point where the pain of others doesn’t move them nearly as much as the theories of Frédéric Bastiat. Then Libertarians will start winning elections.
At National Review, Jay Nordlinger went so far as to portray the famously moderate Romney as the true conservative in the race, and guys like Newt Gingrich as mere posers. “Mike Huckabee said Romney ‘looks like the guy who laid you off,'” recalled Nordlinger. “Conservatives reacted like this was the greatest mot since Voltaire or something… Others said, ‘He looks like a car salesman,’ or, worse, ‘a used-car salesman.’ Ho ho ho! Commerce, gross, icky, yuck.” Such people prefer candidates who have “never sullied their hands with — eek! — business,” said Nordlinger. And as for Gingrich, he had referred to anti-Romney articles in the New York Times “about 800 times.”
Voltaire, the New York Times, use (at least in fantasy versions) of words like gross, icky, yuck, and eek — that ain’t Jay Nordlinger’s muscular idea of conservatism, but Romneyism is: “I was watching a clip of Romney tangling with an ‘Occupy’ protester last week,” said Nordlinger. “Romney was defending corporate profits. I was astounded. I don’t think I had ever seen a candidate do this.”
Nordlinger admitted that there might be sound political reasons why a candidate wouldn’t defend Wall Street to voters, but he did so through an aged Phil Gramm quote, rather than by referencing the financial debacles of a few years back that destroyed the American economy and left many of us sour on the boys on the Street. Nordlinger may not know that such a POV is common — but more likely he doesn’t care. If Romney announced his support for Goldman Sachs — and why shouldn’t he? They’re supporting him — Nordlinger would probably be completely sold on him. He might be the only one, but he’d be sold.
At the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin denounced the film as “an attack on capitalism” and dished out threats: “Does [film director Jason] Meath think imitating Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1994 anti-Bain ads is going to boost his career in GOP circles?” she asked. “Did [Gingrich super PAC contributor Sheldon Adelson] intend his $5 million for the super PAC to be used to attack capitalism? Somehow I get the sense this was not what he had in mind… Gingrich is likely to do poorly tomorrow as will [Rick] Perry… There is no appetite in the GOP for these candidates or their brand of anti-capitalistic pandering.”
It’s certainly true that there’s no appetite in the GOP for Gingrich, Perry and the rest — Romney’s poised to win the South Carolina primary and sweep on to the GOP nomination — but whether that has to do with “anti-capitalistic pandering” or with the long death-march of the pre-primary season, we’ll leave for you to figure. We’ll wait to see what happens when Romney starts explaining to people who aren’t Republicans how his experience at Bain Capital makes him the man to lead a job-starved America. It would be nice if he hired some of his current defenders to script that defense for him, but we doubt he will: He didn’t get this far by playing the fool.