NY Mag's Jonathan Chait Backs Away from Obama's Bain Attacks

Jonathan Chait was pretty excited about the Boston Globe's front page story on Bain Capital yesterday. The Globe report held the momentary promise of enabling Obama's toughest attacks on Romney to be judged, (or rather re-adjudicated) by fact checkers at the Post and FactCheck.org. Everything hinged on when Romney left the company:

The Boston Globe today...reports that Romney has been lying about when he left Bain Capital. This is utterly crucial. Both the fact-checking columns base their conclusions on Romney’s claim that he left Bain in 1999. Obama’s ads are misleading, both say, because they hold Romney accountable for things Bain did after 1999. The revelation that Romney was actively managing Bain renders both those judgments moot.

But today Chait has reversed himself and is clearly trying to climb off the Globe's bandwagon. Where yesterday he claimed that Romney lied, today he offers a more reflective post on "What's True and False in Obama's Bain Attacks." It's not very hard to figure out the false part, though as we'll see in a moment the true part is much more elusive:

President Obama and his allies...have attacked Romney’s record itself. And what they’re saying is, on the basis of the facts available to us, untrue...

The ads attacking Romney are based on pure conjecture. Obama has an ad saying of Romney, “he shipped jobs to China and Mexico.” But Bain Capital did those things after Romney stopped running the company.

So Obama's attacks and his ads are false. That much is clear and I guess we can offer some credit to Chait for admitting as much, despite his initial eagerness to believe otherwise. But the headline promised more than a correction. It promised something true in Obama's Bain attacks. So where is the true part?

The main point is that the role of business is different than the role of government — even if you deny that businesses have social responsibilities, government still does.

First, I'm not sure that has been a part of Obama's ads except in some "emanations of the penumbra" sense. But the real problem is that Chait is assuming the thing at issue. There's no doubt that government has social responsibilities, if by that you mean national defense, the courts, and infrastructure that promotes the general welfare in the broadest sense. What, it seems to me, we have been arguing about for the last four years is the extent of that commitment.

Barack Obama has pushed for a different definition of government's social responsibilities. Are we committed to viewing health insurance as a right? Are we committed to providing two years of unemployment benefits to everyone who loses a job? Are we committed to food stamps for one out of seven Americans and free government phones as well? More to the point, are we committed to these things even if we're $15 trillion in debt and sinking deeper every year? The argument over those questions isn't over. The 2010 election (and the current situation in Europe) make that clear. But Chait's explanation of how this argument works against Romney politically is telling:

Romney’s political problem is that the changes to the business world he helped unleash are unpopular. Whether or not the old world of benevolent corporations of the sort his father ran are justifiable or can survive in a global economy, people liked them.

People do like free stuff. It's a conclusion that is rarely in danger of contradiction. The problem of course is that the free stuff the government is giving away is not really free; the cost is merely shifted to someone else. Democrats, especially in this election, claim that someone is "the rich," but in reality there aren't nearly enough rich people or companies to pay for everything we're currently giving away. The people who will really be stuck with the bill are future generations.

The notion that businesses have no obligation save making money for their shareholders is a hard sell, both conceptually and in the practical outcomes it creates, like mass layoffs. Romney is attempting to portray his business experience as “creating jobs,” but he was actually in the business of creating wealth. Obama has every right to expose that contradiction. He doesn’t have a right to make things up in the process.

Hold on to your hats! Romney is a capitalist, not a New Deal progressive. Looking at the state of the budget and the national debt, some might say that's exactly what we need right now. In any case, even Chait agrees that the thin reed of Romney's capitalism can't justify the intentionally dishonest ads coming out of the Obama campaign.


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