The Upside to the Downgrade for Mitt Romney

The Upside to the Downgrade for Mitt Romney August 9, 2011

Let’s review for a moment.

The American stock market is cratering.  It’s lost roughly ten percent of its value in the last two trading days.  In fact, by some measures, yesterday was the worst day ever for stock markets worldwide.  Just when the European sovereign debt crisis seems to be easing away, the contagion flourishes somewhere else; worse, it’s moving up the food-chain to countries too large for the European Central Bank to simply bail out.  China shows no inclination to change its distortionary monetary policies.  And the American economy staggers under a mountainous weight of debt, teetering on the verge of a second recession.  Even if the stock market performs better today, the trend has been steeply downward and the volatility is distressing.

What’s particularly worrisome for Americans is (1) we’ve already spent so much of the ammunition in the economy-stimulating arsenal, and to little effect, and (2) the political elite show no signs of the capacity and sincere commitment to solve these problems with courage, innovation and common purpose.  It’s hard to think of any American President in living memory who possesses less experience in the private sector than President Obama.  And — all partisanship aside — it shows.  When it comes to creating jobs, balancing budgets, and restoring positive economic momentum, Barack Obama cannot speak from experience.

Thus the alarming superficiality of Obama’s speeches on the economy.  There’s no there there, no lifetime of memories and lessons learned, no core of hard-knocks experience on which to stand.  All he has is theory — the ideology he inherited (uncritically, it seems to me) in the classroom, which become the interpretive grid for his work as a community organizer, and which he promoted in the Illinois State Senate and briefly in the U. S. Senate.  In one moment he emits the most gaseous rhetoric about American ingenuity and green energy and everyone paying their fair share, in the next moment he’s placing blame and casting aspersions on the opposition, then he indulges in a little high-minded talk of post-partisan problem solving, and in the next moment his “bluff” collapses in self-interested accommodation — then, for the coup de grâce, he touts the accommodation as a great victory on his part.

Even his most devout followers find themselves puzzled and disappointed.  His boosters at the New York Times admit that Obama has no “robust vision to invigorate the economy.”  This is a surprise?  Obama responded to the S & P downgrade and the dramatic stock market tumble by recommending…extending unemployment benefits for another year, spending more money on infrastructure (he really means it this time), and keeping payroll taxes lowered.  This is not creative thinking.  It’s not inspiring.  And it shows how impoverished is the economic philosophy he inherited.  It’s easy to feel sympathy.  I’m afraid that President Obama finds himself at that awkward, horrible, humbling moment when one discovers that the ideology to which he has devoted himself simply does not work in the real world.  Whether he is willing to admit it and change course will make a big difference for the country and for his reelection.

This explains a lot.  Just when America needs a CEO for a President, it has a community organizer for President instead.

So, here’s the question: How do you like Mitt Romney now?

It may be churlish to ask who benefits from the economic turmoil politically, and it goes without saying that much can change in fourteen months.  Yet just when we are — and have been for three years now — confronting the greatest economic challenges we have faced in at least thirty years, it so happens that we have one of the American business community’s most renowned executives and turn-around artists running for the Presidency.  Romney is widely known for his integrity, his intelligence, and a seemingly miraculous level of competency.  But he made his name by taking tough cases, where companies or events were falling apart, or where a state was mired in red ink and partisan infighting, and accomplishing dazzling recoveries.

Americans are too accustomed to being entertained.  Romney is “stiff,” some say, “too perfect,” and gives us none of the reality-TV drama that some other candidates do.  Don’t these complaints seem awful small right now?  I am an open Romney admirer, but let me put it this way.  When someone needs to sit down with business leaders and congressional leaders and chart the way toward debt reduction, wise stewardship of the economy, and jobs growth, wouldn’t you rather have someone like Romney in there?

I think Romney is playing this right.  Rick Perry, who will declare his candidacy Saturday, is clearly courting the hard-right evangelical vote.  But his wide-open embrace of God-and-politics will make many moderate evangelicals uncomfortable; it will strike them as a manipulation of religious language and religious aspirations.  Romney was not going to win many from the New Apostolic movement anyway.  But if the economy continues to struggle, and Mitt continues to focus on central issues like job creation and private sector growth, he will be a very, very attractive candidate.

Mitt also seems to understand one important thing that Barack Obama does not.  President Obama has succumbed to the same temptation that overtakes many politicians on both sides of the aisle: the temptation to believe that their power is the most important and most necessary part of the solution.  If a problem arises, Obama wants to use the government to solve it, because he is the government.  That’s how he exercises power; that’s how he feels powerful; that’s how he believes he makes a difference.  Obama’s basic sympathies and confidence are in the government.  This happens to Republicans as well, as the legacy of the Bush administration demonstrates.

I’m not sure President Obama has ever really understood the American economy, what made (makes?) it great, and how it is capable of extraordinary growth and ingenuity all on its own.  Romney does.  I’m not speaking of an unregulated anarchic marketplace.  But Romney understands that sometimes the best thing the government can do is get out of the way.  Romney has confidence in the American business sector.  So he knows that you can remove obstacles, remove the fetters, place a few stimulants here and there, a few incentives and resources, not to solve the problems through government power but to enhance the power of the marketplace and let the American people solve their own problems through initiative, creativity and courage.

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