First a caveat: As will be of no surprise to anyone, I prefer Mitt Romney to Barack Obama. While I have a prejudice about giving money to any politician – I feel about gifts to politicians as P.J. O’Rourke once said about voting for them, “It only encourages the bastards” – I was persuaded by a friend to give $1000.00 to Mr. Romney’s primary campaign last spring. Thus far, the only return on my investment has been a series of unwanted e-mails and unsolicited phone calls. I have never met Mr. Romney; so my opinions expressed below are based on what I know of his history, his family, friends and financial advisors, people like Glenn Hubbard of Columbia and John Taylor of Stanford, and of course what he has accomplished.
The Obama campaign, with a great deal of help from a partisan press, is trying to portray Mitt Romney as an aristocratic, callous multi-millionaire businessman who is out of touch with middleclass Americans. Mr. Romney appears, at times, to be intent on encouraging that image.
The latest flap concerns a surreptitious recording taken at a fundraiser last May and then posted on YouTube. In the recording, Mr. Romney refers to Obama voters who are “dependent on government” and that “47% of workers paid no federal income tax.” It took four months for the Obama campaign to go public with the video, presumably because David Axelrod determined that the publicity effect would be greater a few weeks before the election, rather than during the primary season.
Now it appears that the tapes may have been incomplete or, worse, edited. Breitbart News reported on Wednesday that David Corn of Mother Jones (the company that provided the tape) admitted that “two or three critical minutes may be missing or have been edited out.” As to whether the tapes accurately portray Mr. Romney’s predilections or not, the video snippet was accepted, with no questions asked, by mainstream media. As Dorothy Rabinowitz put it in an op-ed (“The Fourth Estate, Still Thrilling to the Spirit of ’08”) in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, “the sanctimony of the virtuous knows no political bounds.”
A big part of the problem of attempting to understand a man like Mitt Romney is because our primary system requires a candidate to appeal to myriad fringe elements. The problem is compounded by the fact that technology has ensured that there is no such thing as speaking privately to a group no matter how small. It makes no difference where a candidate is; regardless of how they look, or what is said, the event is videoed and recorded, either overtly or covertly. Campaigns use flattering sound bites. On the other hand, if the candidate says something that could be used against them, rest assured it will be.
The electorate is better served to look at Mr. Romney’s record as a student, husband, father and businessman. They should consider his time as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics and as Governor of Massachusetts, rather than listening to sound bites that almost always are cut and edited for effect.
The head of the school attended by his five sons gave a speech in the mid 1990s to parents. In it he deplored the state of our politics and suggested that men like Mr. Romney, then head of Bain Capital, should consider public office. I have no idea if that headmaster today supports Mr. Romney, but I believe he perceived at the time a quality in Mr. Romney that many in public life do not have, and that is a sense of honor. Mr. Romney’s compassion can be seen in the affection of his family for him (and he for them) and in the story of his once suspending all activities at Bain in order to conduct a search for the missing daughter of a colleague. There is little question about his competency, as seen by his success at Bain and at saving the 2002 Winter Olympics from financial collapse. As Governor, he proved his ability to work with a Democratic legislature, reduce a projected $3 billion deficit, and, yes, help shape and sign a Massachusetts healthcare plan.
The role of the Fourth Estate has historically been to present all sides of an issue or individual, so as to provide the reader or the viewer the data to make an informed judgment. As we all know, instead they have become advocates and, in some cases, participants. Opinions should be reserved for the editorial pages. David Brooks, unique among columnists for generally writing intelligently and dispassionately, did himself a disservice on Monday, in my opinion. His sense of balance seemed to be off-kilter in his column, “Thurston Howell Romney.” First, Mr. Romney bears no resemblance to the scatter-brained and pompous Mr. Howell of “Gilligan’s Island.”. Mr. Brooks, in his column, is far too quick to draw conclusions. He suggests that Mr. Romney’s “inelegant” (as Mr. Romney termed them) remarks – ones that now appear to have been partially taken out of context – say unflattering things about the candidate. Mr. Brooks claims “he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits,” that he “doesn’t know much about the culture of America,” and that he “knows nothing about ambition and motivation.” The allegations fall somewhere between spurious and ridiculous.
Mr. Brooks invokes another charge. He suggests that Mr. Romney has lost any sense of the social contract, quoting a Pew Research Center survey that showed that 62% of Republicans in 1987 believed that government has a responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves. Mr. Romney’s signing of healthcare legislation in Massachusetts indicates a compassionate side and that he cares. Mr. Brooks fails to focus on the enormous differences between the financial health of our economy twenty-five years ago and today. Most Americans, including most Republicans, expect government to help those unable to help themselves. Certainly I feel that way. But the problem is not what we would like to do; it has become what we can afford to do. In 1987, federal debt was 51% of GDP; today it is over 100%. I enjoy David Brooks’ columns and will continue to read them, but this one was beneath his standards.
Like all candidates in a country with many differences, Mr. Romney is trying to win an election to govern 315 million Americans. It is why we need to look at what he has done, not sound bites taken out of context. It is why the same principles should apply to Mr. Obama and the mentors who have influenced him – ones that he has tried to run from (think Jeremiah Wright,) something Mr. Romney does not do. While the mainstream media will search under every rock looking for some damaging association or comment of Mr. Romney, they provide a pass to the President. In so doing, they leave to us the responsibility of determining which is the better candidate.
George Will, in a recent column “Feeling Our Infantilism,” quotes a Washington Post/ABC News poll that asked: Which candidate would you rather have home to dinner? We don’t elect Presidents on the basis of friendship, or at least I hope we don’t. Speeches before cameras stacked with screaming partisans only fuel the narcissism of a candidate. We have too much of that. Mr. Obama’s appearance on the fawning David Letterman’s show did nothing to advance people’s knowledge of the evasive President. In fact, at a time of crises at home and around the world, the President’s appearance was discomfiting. As Mr. Will suggests, the electorate is old enough to be treated as adults. The question should be, in regard to the economy: “Is this the best we can do?” The answer has to be no; we can do better.
Who is Mitt Romney? I realize I have not answered the question. But we know certain things. His history is not shadowy like Mr. Obama’s. He did not write his own autobiography before he was thirty, as did Mr. Obama, so as to control the search into his background. Mr. Romney is not only a capable entrepreneur, he is a talented administrator. As governor, he showed he could work across the aisle. He has successfully tackled big problems, but most important, in my mind, he has combined decency and compassion with competency, in both his personal life and in his professional careers.
My bias is based on not only on my sense of each candidate’s character, but on the fact that the crisis we face, the one of our debt and our deficit, is the greatest in my memory. Federal debt, at over $16 trillion, exceeds 100% of GDP for the first time since World War II. Our annual deficits, which, collectively, have amounted to $5 trillion in the past four years, are expected to exceed $1 trillion in each of the next four years. At that rate, the expansion in deficits will be three times the projected growth in GDP. In short, we are facing a potential financial crisis of enormous dimensions.
Globally, we face the possibility of horrific collisions between a nuclear armed Iran and a vulnerable Israel, and increasing tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, (populated for the most part with goats). Our ability to help will be constrained unless we very soon address the tidal wave of debt that is approaching. If we do nothing, it will be monetized, sending inflation soaring.
The problem of getting our own house in order first is somewhat analogous to the advice given air passengers about to depart: when and if the oxygen masks descend, put yours on before placing one on your child.
Mr. Obama has shown no interest or resolve in seriously addressing this issue. In fact, of the four candidates running for President and Vice President, only Paul Ryan has been willing to speak out regularly on the subject. The President, the Vice President, along with the mainstream media, have done their utmost to demonize and marginalize him. Perhaps Mr. Romney will also be unable to resolve this issue, but the risks of staying with Mr. Obama, on the current course, are far too great. The election is not about who might be the most compassionate; it is about who has the most common sense.