Tag Archives: Mitt Romney

Tagg, you’re it

An April NYT story about Tagg Romney’s private equity firm illustrates two points:

  • How the 1% becomes an entrenched aristocracy.
  • How subtly political corruption works.

Tagg is Mitt’s oldest son. Right after Mitt’s 2008 presidential campaign folded its tent, Tagg, a lawyer, and Romney-for-President finance director Spencer Zwick used the campaign’s rolodex of big-money contributors to start Solamere Capital — which describes itself as

A small number of families with broad networks joined together to aggregate their access to top-tier private equity firms, proprietary deal flow, and unparalleled management resources and expertise.

The strategy page of Solamere’s web site has seven bullet points, six of which begin with the word access. The gist: We know the right people, so we get offered deals that ordinary Joes never hear about.

Only the lawyer had any previous experience in private equity, but between the Romney name, the campaign donor list, and an early $10 million investment from Mitt himself, they have raised $244 million from 64 investors and made $16.8 million in fees.

Zwick was simultaneously raising capital for Solamere and PAC money for Mitt Romney’s Free and Strong America — often from the same people. All perfectly legal. Did any of those investors see the son’s company as a way to get in good with the father, a possible future president? Was anybody looking down the road far enough to anticipate Tagg continuing the Romney political dynasty? We’ll probably never know.

George W. Bush’s pre-politics career is a similar story: Contributors to his father’s campaigns repeatedly opened doors for him and invested in his businesses. Was that corruption? Or just helping out a nice young man from a good family?

It seems not to have been classic quid-pro-quo corruption. Nobody has identified any particular favor that the Bushes, senior or junior, did in exchange for junior’s opportunities. But this is one more example of the Washington gift economy. Lobbyist A doesn’t buy the vote of Congressman B; he just does nice things for B, thereby establishing a lasting relationship in which A and B will continue to be nice to each other without breaking any laws. Win/win.

So far, both Solamere and its investors seem to be winning. The firm has made 20% per year for the last two years. (Investments in general have also been up these last two years, though, so it’s hard to say how impressive that is without knowing more. Solamere might get those returns via a high risk/high reward strategy that will burn them in down years.)

But that raises another question: Did Solamere make money because they were cut in on lucrative deals, again, by people who wanted to get in good with a possible future president? Similar suspicions dogged George W. Bush. (The most controversial incident was when Bush Jr.’s company Harken Energy got a surprising contract from Bahrain while Bush Sr. was president, though a WaPo reporter called implications of influence-peddling  “baseless”.) Questions were also raised about the profit Hillary Clinton made in commodity-trading while her husband was governor. (Like everything else about the Clintons, this was investigated to the Nth degree and no charges were brought.)

But even if you assume that everything in Tagg Romney’s career is above board and 100% honest, this is still a story about how the aristocracy reproduces. Tagg hasn’t inherited any of his parents’ hundreds of millions yet. And maybe he never will. Mitt claims he gave away his inheritance from his millionaire/auto-executive/governor father because he and Ann already had “enough of our own”. (Though he did get through school by selling stock his father had given him.)

Tagg is getting rich “on his own” too. Someday he also may claim to be a self-made man, and dismiss his critics as just “envious” of his “success“.

Does Romney’s bullying matter? and other short notes

The second most-talked-about story of the week was the Washington Post’s report on Mitt Romney’s days at the exclusive Cranbrook prep school, and in particular on his bullying of a gay underclassman.

The biggest debate was around whether anyone should care. Liberals hate the attempts to make scandals out of Obama’s distant past. Isn’t this the same kind of hit piece?

Not entirely. It’s much better sourced than the typical Obama-went-to-a-madrassah story. The sources are named; they were Romney’s classmates; and one of them was his best friend and roommate. Hit pieces come from people who are rewriting history to make themselves look good. Mitt’s roommate knows he’s making himself look bad. He’s telling the story because he feels bad; he’s regretted his role in the bullying incident ever since it happened.

But even if the WaPo’s story is 100% accurate, why should we care? It was a long time ago. Don’t we all have high school memories that make us cringe?

After telling his own high school cringe story, Steve Almond says that’s exactly the problem: Romney shows no signs of cringing. He says he doesn’t remember, that “I did some stupid things in high school, and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.”

I would be sorry, if I hurt anyone (like a bunch of my friends remember me doing).

A few weeks ago in The Narratives of November, I talked about the stories that each campaign is trying to establish in the minds of voters. Incidents like this only matter politically if they find a place in those stories. Like the dog on the roof incident and “I like being able to fire people“, this one does.

Mitt Romney’s policies, like Republican policies in general, impose sacrifice and suffering on Americans who are already down on their luck: people who need food stamps, unemployment benefits, or help paying for medical care. You can spin that two ways. Positively, Romney is a decisive leader making tough choices in difficult times. Or negatively, he just doesn’t care.

It matters a lot which way that spin goes. In the 1980s, was Romney the business visionary who realized how corporate America needed to change? Or was he the vulture capitalist who gave no thought to the lives and communities he might wreck? Today, is he the grown-up in the room, who overcomes his sentimental reactions to do what needs to be done? Or is there nothing to overcome, because he has no feelings for anyone but himself, his family, and his super-wealthy peers?

If he can’t even respond to the WaPo story with something as simple as: “I’ve felt bad about that incident for years, and I wish John were still around so I could apologize to him face-to-face”, then the he-doesn’t-care spin gets a big boost.

A real mom lays out what she really wants:

Obama’s support of same-sex marriage is brave, but it’s not in the same league with LBJ’s speech supporting the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Bad as Johnson’s delivery was, I always tear up when he gets to this:

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Maurice Sendak’s last interview with Stephen Colbert was a good way to go out.

Paul Krugman predicts the endgame in the long-running Euro crisis.

Just as the Mayan calendar starts running out, somebody finds another Mayan calendar.

Or from the Left: “Obama caves on high-fructose corn syrup.”

Senator Richard Lugar was never exactly a moderate, but at least he would listen sometimes and think about the national interest rather than his party’s interest. His message after losing a primary to a Tea Party challenger:

Ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself.

A very sophisticated quiz to help you figure out which party lines up with your views. I came out Green, probably because it doesn’t ask: “Do you want to vote for somebody who has a chance to win?”

Salon looks at the cost of college and concludes: As government spends less on higher education, students have to spend more. And what government does spend is more and more likely to get siphoned off by exploitive for-profit institutions.

Gays Need Not Apply

Richard Grenell is gay. Here’s the signal his appointment as Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman was supposed to send:

When Grenell’s appointment was announced last month, most observers took it as a sign that Romney was starting to move to the center to win moderate and independent voters in November, a welcome change after a Republican primary process often dominated by religious-right candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum.

Foreign-policy-wise, Grenell is a Bush-administration guy with impeccable neo-conservative credentials. So if anything, his appointment made the substance of the Romney campaign even more conservative.

But Grenell is gay. (Did I mention that already?) So he symbolized that Romney isn’t totally under the thumb of the Religious Right.

But then the Religious Right looked under its thumb and said, “Where’s Mitt?”

The reaction of the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer is worth watching, because if I just describe it you’ll think I’m exaggerating.

Fischer says this very slowly, so his radio listeners can appreciate just how beyond the pale the situation is:

Richard Grenell is an out, loud, and proud homosexual. And he is now the face of the Romney campaign on national security and foreign policy.

Horrors! Fischer begins by discussing Grenell’s advocacy of same-sex marriage in New York state (which I suppose could become a foreign policy issue if New York secedes from the Union) and then goes off on how homosexuals want to change the marriage laws, but

they don’t actually care about getting married … because they are not about commitment. Homosexuals are about short-lived relationships and frequent anonymous sexual encounters. … Now whether Grenell indulges in that, I don’t know.

Ignorance is never a reason to stay silent, though, so Fischer launches into a minute-long rant about gay promiscuity in general. You know: up to 1000 sexual partners, men having sex in public parks and restrooms, and so on. And then suddenly we’re talking about Grenell again. The segue goes like this:

This is endemic in the homosexual community: these random, frequent, and anonymous sexual encounters. And that becomes a serious issue when we’re talking about appointing somebody to a post as sensitive as a spokesman for national security and foreign policy.

Finely honed logic like that may be why Fischer’s lead was followed by other theocrats like Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer. And then not-specifically-religious voices like National Review and Daily Caller weighed in against Grenell.

For two weeks — even when the issue-of-the-day was a national security thing like the killing of Osama bin Laden —  Romney kept Grenell in the closet (which kind of nullifies the whole “spokesman” thing) and waited for the storm to blow over. The campaign claims they wanted him to stay, but when Grenell was instructed not to speak during a national-security conference call he had organized, it was too much. He resigned.

Fischer was triumphant:

This is a huge win…. I will flat-out guarantee you [Romney] is not going to make this mistake again. There is no way in the world that Mitt Romney is going to put a homosexual activist in any position of importance in his campaign.

He’s probably right. Mitt learned his lesson — and so should moderate swing voters.

The key to the art of flip-flopping is convincing people that you were lying to the other guy; your true heart is in what you’re saying now. As he heads towards the general election, Romney needs to be retiring severely conservative Mitt and taking Massachusetts moderate Mitt out of mothballs. Because … you know (shrug, wink), you have to say a bunch of crazy shit to get nominated. That was then; this is now.

The theocrats aren’t going to go along with that. And it doesn’t matter which version of Romney holds his true heart, as long as he wears a dog collar and the likes of Bryan Fischer hold a very short leash.

If that’s the case in a general election campaign, when swing voters have the most leverage, won’t it be even more true after Inauguration Day?

And finally, Romney’s willingness to be dominated raises an authentic foreign policy question that even the theocrats should be asking. Bring it home, Bryan Fischer:

if Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, coopted by a conservative radio talk show host in Middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin? How is he going to stand up to North Korea if he can be pushed around by a yokel like me? I don’t think Romney is realizing the doubts that this begins to raise about his leadership.

At last, Bryan, you and I can agree on something.

The Narratives of November

All across the Commentariat, I’m hearing the same message: “The pregame warm-up is over.” The Obama vs. Romney show-down has finally arrived, so it’s time to get serious about the November election.

It’s fascinating, though, to see what “getting serious” means to different people. For some, it means getting down to the nuts and bolts of the electoral college. We actually hold 51 presidential elections – don’t forget D.C. – or even 56, once you realize that Maine and Nebraska award one electoral vote for each congressional district plus two for the winner of the statewide election.

People who get electoral-college-serious are already drawing their swing-state maps, like CNN’s above, where they give Obama 196 EVs, Romney 159, and leave 183 up for grabs in 15 swing states. If you want to try your own scenarios, go to 270towin.com. (Here’s mine: Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina only go to Obama in another landslide. Ditto for Romney taking Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. So I start with Obama 242, Romney 206 and eight swing states worth 90. I think it will ultimately come down to Ohio and Virginia.)

Other people get demographic-serious. These folks focus on the Latino vote, the gender gap, and the turnout of Obama’s “new voters” (mainly blacks and young people) who showed up in 2008 but not in 2010.

You can also get characteristic-serious. People’s voting choices might still be in flux, but Obama is more “likeable” than Romney (56%–27% in a recent poll), and is also seen as “more honest and trustworthy” (44%–33%).

Here’s the way I’m looking at the race: April head-to-head polls are fun, but a lot can happen before November. Unless you’re a professional campaign strategist, it’s also too early to get electoral-college-serious. That’s a game to play in October, when it merges with demographic-seriousness and you start talking about the Hispanic vote in Colorado or how the urban/rural split is playing out in Virginia.

Characteristic-seriousness is only part of the story. Nobody liked or trusted Richard Nixon, but in 1972 Tricky Dick had one of the biggest landslides ever. Nate Silver says favorability predicts the outcome in October, but not so well in April. (Maybe we talk ourselves into liking a candidate after we decide to vote for him.)

So instead, I’m getting narrative-serious. To me, this phase of the campaign is about fleshing out four stories: Why you should vote

  • for Obama
  • against Obama
  • for Romney
  • against Romney.

Come November, one of those stories is going to sound a lot more believable than the other three. Whoever benefits from that story is going to win.

The candidates’ characteristics matter, but only as the building-blocks of their stories. So Mitt Romney’s message can’t be: “You should vote for me because I’m a regular guy like you.” That loses, because we’ve all already decided we don’t believe it.

Losing campaigns are characterized by images that crystalize the unbelievability of some part of the candidate’s story: Mike Dukakis in a tank. John Kerry hunting geese. Mitt Romney trying to look like a regular guy is a similar image waiting to happen.

This didn't help.

But Romney doesn’t have to be a regular guy to win. FDR wasn’t and neither was JFK. Neither, for that matter, is Obama. So Romney could have a winning message like this: “This country is going the wrong way and Romney is a smart executive who knows how to turn things around.” People who don’t like Mitt at all might believe that story and vote for him.

Who says aristocrats can't win?

Vote for Romney. The Romney smart-executive message depends on a couple of things. The more the economy appears to need saving, the better it works. Plus, Romney has to look and sound like that guy. He needs to win the debates, and he needs some economic proposals that seem new.

Obama’s allies can throw sand in Romney’s gears in two ways: (1) By pointing out that Romney wasn’t a turn-around executive, he was a vulture capitalist who profited from deals that destroyed jobs. (2) By identifying Romney’s don’t-tax-the-rich, don’t-regulate-BP policies with the Bush administration. If Romney’s so smart about the economy, why does he sound just like George W. Bush?

Vote for Obama. Obama needs to portray himself as a reasonable guy who did well under difficult conditions, and who has kept his eye on the country’s long-term goals. He needs to contrast how the economy is now (middling) with how it was on Inauguration Day (in free fall).

No matter what the Supreme Court does with it, he needs to defend Obamacare as the only progress recent presidents have made on reforming our broken healthcare system. Make Romney (or the Court) own all the problems of the pre-Obamacare system.

Obama can also point to foreign policy successes that have no parallel on Romney’s resume: We’re not fighting in Iraq any more. We’re winding down Afghanistan. And Osama bin Laden is dead.

Romney’s allies can counter this by exploiting any bad news and blaming it on Obama. They need voters to judge the economy on an absolute scale rather than a relative one. Who cares how things were under Bush? They’re bad now.

Vote Against Romney. You should vote against Romney because he’s not on your side. His policies favor the rich because he’s rich, he’s always been rich, and the rich are the only people he understands or cares about.

A simple “he’s rich” argument won’t work, because nobody cares. Every big name in politics, Obama included, is rich by most people’s standards. But if Romney’s wealth and general stiffness can be tied to his pro-1% policies, he loses.

In the primaries, Romney interpreted every such attack as envy of his success, not resentment of his being on the wrong side. That was sufficient for a Republican audience, for whom the rich are heroes. (But even there you have to wonder what would have happened in Michigan and Ohio if Santorum had hammered economic issues rather than wandering off into Jesusland.) But he’ll have to come up with a better answer in the general election.

The Obama campaign will make sure that specific groups are reminded of the extreme positions Romney took against them when he needed right-wing support. Women will hear a lot about what Romney-supported “personhood” laws would do to contraception, and Latinos won’t be allowed to forget his self-deportation policy. These attacks will be hard to counter without feeding the Romney-will-say-anything meme.

Vote Against Obama. There are two anti-Obama messages. The one for general consumption is that he hasn’t performed well enough to deserve a second term. The economy is still bad, the deficit is high, the wars have fizzled rather than ending in victory, and Iran is still on track to get the bomb.

That all works better if there is bad news to tie it to: a new downturn, a big bankruptcy, a terrorist attack, and so on. (Karl Rove thinks Obama can be beaten on foreign policy, but it’s hard to see how that happens without some striking event.)

The second anti-Obama message needs to be carefully targeted to the white Christian population:  In Obama’s vision of America’s future, you’re not on top any more. Working-class whites in particular feel insecure and long for an imagined past. Romney needs to (subtly) cast Obama as the reason that past can’t come back.

What Works? It’s possible one campaign will just be better than the other at telling its stories. The anti-Obama story will have a ton of corporate money behind it, and that might make a difference.

But if both campaigns are competent, it’s going to come to events. If the news between now and November is neutral or positive, Obama’s stories work. But if there’s major bad news, voters may decide that Romney deserves a first chance more than Obama deserves a second.

Rich People Don’t Have Jobs

The news hook for this post is the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney flap, but in truth just about every week offers some hook for the following observation: Rich people don’t have jobs, they have hobbies.

If any multi-millionaire CEOs and investment bankers read the Sift (love to hear from you), they’re probably screaming at me: “What do you mean I don’t have a job? I have the toughest job in the world! I work 80 hours a week, and the stress follows me home. Waitresses and coal miners are slackers compared to me.”

Maybe so.

Whenever the national conversation turns to inequality, the corporate media gives us gobs of stories about and testimonies from the hard-working 1%. Probably some of it’s exaggerated – waitresses and coal miners don’t have publicists, after all – but maybe a lot of it is true.

By all accounts, Bill Gates was very focused during those years when he turned his first Microsoft billion into fifty more. Warren Buffett may spend every waking hour researching Berkshire Hathaway’s next big investment. For all I know, Kobe Byrant and Tiger Woods train like maniacs.

It doesn’t matter. Rich people have always devoted a lot of time and effort to their hobbies. That doesn’t mean they have jobs.

You know what a job is? It’s something you do because you need to eat, or because your family is counting on you. You don’t necessarily hate it, and maybe you’d even keep doing it if you didn’t have to. (I used to get my hair cut by an 80ish guy who just liked feeling useful and talking to people. He told great stories about barbering on luxury trains back in the day.) But that’s the whole point: If it’s really a job, you do have to.

That’s the only test that counts. It’s not how hard you work, it’s what happens if you stop. If quitting means real hardship for you or your family, you have a job. If you keep at it even though you could spend the rest of your life skipping rocks at your house by the lake, you have a hobby.

I’ve got nothing against hobbies. The Weekly Sift is a hobby. One way to describe the Marxist vision of Utopia is that we’d all be hobbyists, and the world’s work would get done by people who just wanted the satisfaction of doing it. (That vision even works sometimes: Wikipedia, open source software, and so on.)

People have hobbies for fulfillment, for identity, to get out of the house, to make the world a better place, to test themselves against worthy adversaries, and for a lot of other creditable reasons. People have jobs because their kids need braces.

It’s not a difficult concept.

And that brings me to the Romneys.

Like most Republican politicians, Mitt Romney has been having trouble figuring out how to respond to the fact that women don’t like him. Across the country, Republicans have been pushing policies that (at best) are insensitive to the needs and desires of the vast majority of American women. Democrats have packaged that as a “War on Women”, and polls show that their message is working. In particular, it’s working against Mitt, who had to endorse a lot of War-on-Women policies to compete with Rick Santorum for the votes of social conservatives.

What to do?

Romney still has problems on his right flank, so he can’t just shake the Etch-a-Sketch and draw a more feminist set of policies. Instead he’s been touting Ann as his connection to the women of America. (That’s patronizingly close to a some-of-my-best friends-are-women defense, but it’s all he’s got.) Women, Ann tells him, don’t care about so-called “women’s issues” like contraception or equal pay:

My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me, and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy.

On CNN’s AC360, liberal talking-head Hilary Rosen objected that even if we shift away from social issues to economic issues, Ann Romney is not the best person to represent women’s interests.

Guess what? His wife has never actually worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.

And that brought down a hailstorm of outrage, because it allowed Republicans to brand Democrats as anti-Mom. How dare Rosen say Ann Romney has never worked? Ann raised five boys – that’s work enough for anybody! And so on.

All of which is beside the point, because the job/hobby distinction applies as much to within-the-home work as to work-for-money.

Yes, a lot of effort goes into raising five boys to adulthood, and Ann may have done a fair piece of it herself. For all I know, she could have changed all the diapers, nursed all the colds, and packed all the lunch boxes. If so, she must have been reasonably good at it, because the kids seem to have turned out fine.

But here’s what makes all the difference: She didn’t have to. If Ann lifted a finger around the kitchen or nursery, it was because she wanted to. She found it satisfying, it was part of her identity, or she had some other motive unconnected to necessity. If her search for fulfillment ever turned her in a different direction, an upscale domestic-help agency could have dispatched an armada of well-qualified maids and cooks and nannies to Romney Manor in no time at all.

So whatever vomit-wiping, homework-correcting, and cheese-sandwich-grilling Ann did was part of her hobby, not her job. If it ever became too much for her – for one night, a weekend, or forever – she had the option to become Lady Ann and have the servants call her whenever the boys did something cute or fun.

It isn’t like that for most American moms, whether they work inside the home, outside the home, or in somebody else’s home. They have jobs.

It wasn’t like that for my Mom, a housewife who differed from Ann Romney in about a quarter of a billion ways. Mom took pride in providing a good home for her family, but it was a job, not a hobby. Dad worked two jobs of his own, so most of the time there was no back-up.

Cooking in particular was a job. Mom took pride in keeping us well fed, but she rarely bought cookbooks or experimented with recipes. She had an adequate repertoire and stuck to it. Early in their marriage, she nixed Dad’s suggestion of camping or rent-a-cabin vacations. “If I have to cook,” she said, “it’s not a vacation.”

It’s too late to ask her, but I doubt Mom would have picked Ann Romney to be her voice in the halls of power. I don’t think they had a lot in common. Hobbyists and job-workers rarely do, even if (by all outward appearances) they’re doing the same things.

Maybe someday everybody will live in Wikipedia World, where the work gets done by hobbyists and nobody is driven by economic necessity. Some of us get to spend a lot of time there now.

But most people don’t. They have jobs – in the home, in the factory, in the office, or out in cyberspace somewhere. Working a job is a central fact about their lives — which is precisely why you won’t figure out what they want or need by talking to hobbyists. Not even hobbyists who work very, very hard.

Seven Issues the Election Should Be About

You may not have noticed, but the general election campaign started this week. I say that for two reasons:

  • Mitt Romney’s victory in Wisconsin pretty well seals his nomination. Republicans understand now: No white knight is coming to save them. It’s Romney or four more years of Obama.
  • President Obama’s speech Tuesday was essentially a keynote address for the fall campaign.

We can already see what that campaign will be like. Romney won the GOP nomination by raising massive amounts of money and carpet-bombing any prospective rival with negative ads. President Obama is projected to raise just under a billion dollars. In either case, you really can’t spend that kind of money on warm, fuzzy stuff. Constant advertising annoys people, so the best you can hope for is to transfer their annoyance to your opponent.

Given how politics has been going, we can anticipate that major issues will be dodged, misrepresented, and even lied about. The media, which ought to be ferreting out the information voters need to make a wise choice, will instead focus on whatever gaffes or stinging comebacks they can find or manufacture, no matter how irrelevant or trivial.

That’s a shame, because there really is an important debate to be had. I don’t claim to know what Mitt Romney believes in his heart – recently his campaign has suggested that we don’t know his “real views” yet – but I know what his party and the conservative movement stands for. Similarly, I’m never sure exactly how much liberalism President Obama is going to defend, but I have a good idea what liberalism means.

It’s a significant contrast. A honest debate between those two worldviews, resulting in a clear choice by a well-informed electorate, would be a tremendous plus for this country.

OK, it won’t happen. But we shouldn’t just shrug and let the candidates off the hook. Even as we see the waters start to circle around the sewer drain, let’s review what this campaign should be about.

1. Inequality. We’ve been in a vicious cycle for 30 years now: The rich get richer; they use that money to buy more political power; and then they use that political power to lower their taxes, weaken the the regulations they have to follow, and otherwise game the system in their favor – plus make it easier to buy political power.

The Republican Party has been the main (but not the only) vehicle for the rich, so it will be interesting to see whether President Obama succeeds in raising this issue, or if conservatives manage to label it all as envy and class warfare. I thought Obama laid it out pretty well Tuesday:

In this country, broad-based prosperity has never trickled down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class. … And yet, for much of the last century, we have been having the same argument with folks who keep peddling some version of trickle-down economics. They keep telling us that if we’d convert more of our investments in education and research and health care into tax cuts — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. … Now, the problem for advocates of this theory is that we’ve tried their approach — on a massive scale. The results of their experiment are there for all to see.

2. The National Security State. At a time when government is supposed to be tightening its belt, we continue to spend more on defense than all our potential enemies put together. Is that really necessary? How much money could we save with a less aggressive foreign policy that didn’t inject us into every conflict?

Would the world really be a worse place? We’ll never know how the Arab Spring would have handled Saddam if we hadn’t spent all that blood and treasure in Iraq.

And then there’s the internal effect on our liberty and democracy. Government surveillance gets ever more intrusive, and more and more of the government’s actions are secret. How necessary is that?

The opposing case is that the world is a dangerous place, and would be even more dangerous if the US didn’t police it. Maybe Norway can keep its freedom defended with (and from) a relatively small security force, but the US doesn’t have that option.

It’s President Obama’s fault that we won’t have this discussion. (Ron Paul was the only Republican candidate who wanted to talk about it.) He has largely continued the Bush national security policies rather than challenge them.

3. Climate change. There are lots of legitimate liberal/conservative issues to hash out concerning how to deal with climate change: Should we lower CO2 by market mechanisms (cap and trade), by a carbon tax, or by direct government regulation? Should we bargain hard to get other countries to do their part, or should we take the lead? What CO2 level should we be shooting for and how fast should we try to get there? How do we balance the expense of current CO2 reduction versus investments in future research? Can geo-engineering play a role?

We aren’t having those debates because the fossil fuel corporations have spent enormous amounts of money to make the existence of climate change the issue, when in fact the science is well established. The Republican Party has been acting as a wholely-owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel companies, and some Democrats have also been either bought or intimidated by energy-industry cash.

4. The Deficit. Elsewhere I’ve presented the idea that the deficit is not the doomsday device many would have you believe. But it is a symptom of a broken political process. Congress’ main job is to figure out what we as a people want to buy and how we’re going to pay for it. If it can’t do that, what can it do?

A big chunk of the problem is the misinformed electorate. Survey after survey shows that we grossly overestimate how much money is spent on welfare, foreign aid, and whatever National-Endowment-for-the-Arts-type program we find most offensive. We also grossly underestimate how many government services we use personally, and we’re misinformed about how our taxes compare to Americans of recent decades. (Hint: Our taxes are far lower, especially for corporations and the wealthy.)

About half the country thinks we can eliminate the deficit with spending cuts that don’t touch “programs that benefit people like you”. That wishful thinking allows candidates to get away with proposing big-but-vague spending cuts that exempt defense, Social Security, and Medicare — just about everything we spend big on.

5. Immigration. Both liberals and conservatives are conflicted about immigration. There is no ideologically pure answer to our immigration problem, which is why the conversation never goes anywhere.

The centuries-old dream of American employers is to have a workforce that can’t vote. So their ideal is to have temporary foreign-worker programs: We bring people in for ten years or so, get them to work hard for very little money, and then send them home.

But working-class whites see immigrants-taking-American-jobs as one of the social changes they want the Republican Party to protect them from. Hence the rhetoric about rounding up the millions of undocumented Hispanic workers and sending them home.

The last thing the Republican Party wants is millions of poor, non-white new citizens — who would probably vote for Democrats. Democrats would like that, but the unions that support Democrats probably wouldn’t, for the same reason as conservative working-class whites.

Everybody agrees that we shouldn’t have millions of undocumented people wandering around. It’s a security risk, makes our worker-protection rules unenforcible, and generally undermines the rule of law. But since neither side has a solution it wants to take to the voters, both will posture about the issue rather than try to make progress.

6. Health care. Our health care system is a mess. We spend way more per person than any other country, and we get worse results. This is a great country for someone as rich as Dick Cheney to get a heart transplant, but it’s a terrible country for a poor pregnant woman to get pre-natal care. When you average it out, our life expectancy sucks and we lead the industrialized world in unnecessary deaths.

ObamaCare (like the RomneyCare it’s based on) is an imperfect first step at reform. I think it gives away far too much to health insurance companies and drug companies, but that’s politics. If Congress repeals it or the Supreme Court throws it out, we’re essentially nowhere, because the “replace” part of the Republican “repeal and replace” slogan is just a word; there is no actual plan that addresses any of the substantive issues.

And liberals shouldn’t let Obama say “Done now.” ObamaCare has a lot of holes that need filling.

7. The future of democracy. This issue runs through a lot of the others. Ideally, individual voters would educate themselves about the issues that concern them and elect candidates to represent their views. If they really felt strongly, they’d donate $20 or $50 to a campaign.

We’re far, far away from that ideal, and moving farther all the time. The Supreme Court has ruled that money equals speech, and that more speech is better than less. So elections are dominated by massive spending that produces better propaganda — not better educated voters.

In addition, while voters may wake up in time for an election, the big-money interests never sleep. Defeat some special-interest measure like SOPA, and within a few months it will be back in a different form. The big banks can hire entire staffs of lobbyists to write loopholes into new regulations. Voters don’t have the time to ferret that stuff out, and if they did, they couldn’t organize themselves fast enough to do anything about it.

We aren’t having this discussion because no candidate who took it seriously could raise enough money. Worse, neither party even has an ideal vision of how to handle it. The closest thing to a practical reform vision I’ve seen so far is Lawrence Lessig’s.

Resist. Chances are, this election will be decided by something stupid: a blip in the unemployment numbers, a new Romney gaffe on the Etch-a-Sketch scale, or Obama’s inability to prove that he is not a shape-shifter from the Gamma Quadrant. Heck, we’ve had elections decided on the Pledge of Allegiance.

But we don’t have to give in to that. Collectively, social networking ought to give us Arab-Spring-level power, if we exercise it.  We can refuse to respond to nonsense. We can keep coming back to the real issues. It may not work in this cycle. But eventually, we might be able to drag the candidates back to what’s important.

The Tragedy of Mitt Romney

The most frustrating Republican candidate for me to watch this year is Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum is who he is: a small-minded theocrat. Ron Paul is the same old coot with funny ideas that he’s been for years. Newt Gingrich (like Herman Cain and Sarah Palin before him) is a huckster who wants to sell books and get on TV. If those jokers want to run for president and Republicans want to vote for them, that’s their problem.

But here’s the thing about Mitt Romney: At one time, there was a good argument for electing him president. Then he lost faith in himself or in the American people or both. So rather than take his legitimate case to the voters and try to convince them to do the right thing, he decided to pander to the crazies.

I think that mistake is tragic, in the original Sophocles/Shakespeare sense of the word.

President Romney? Seriously? Most Sift readers are liberals, so I imagine you are asking “A good argument for making Romney president? What?”

Here’s the argument: The #1 problem in America today — worse than income inequality or unemployment or racism or the deficit or climate change — is our inability to marshall our forces and even attempt to solve those problems.

That’s why “Yes We Can” was such an appealing slogan four years ago. At some visceral level, voters didn’t even care what the new president was going to do. We just wanted to believe that he would do something. We wanted to believe that we didn’t have to sit here and watch the oceans rise, soldiers die in pointless wars, college become an unaffordable luxury, debts of all kinds skyrocket, and jobs run away to China.

We were sick of arguing about which party got us lost in this wilderness. Just lead us in some direction that has a chance of getting us home. We’ll follow. That’s all we want.

That’s still what we want, because we haven’t gotten it yet. That’s why President Obama is vulnerable. He accomplished a few noteworthy things during the half-year when he had 60 senators (from the delayed swearing-in of Al Franken in July, 2009 to the out-of-cycle election of Scott Brown in January, 2010), but anybody who was starting to regain faith in the American government lost it again during the debt-limit fiasco last summer.

You can argue (as I often have) that the problem is the intransigence of the Republicans in Congress. But you can’t argue that government is working.

If I were a Romney speechwriter. Mitt could have laid it out to the voters like this:

When I became governor of Massachusetts, I took on the toughest problem the state had: health care. I didn’t hide behind the excuse that the other party controlled the legislature. I started with the best ideas of the conservative Heritage Foundation, I listened to smart people of all political persuasions, and I appealed to both parties’ desire to make life better for the people of our state.

And we did. Today, Massachusetts leads the nation in access to health care. That system is not perfect, but it is working and it is popular. Today, neither party can win a statewide election by opposing it.

Our plan’s success gave the current administration the courage and the model to attack the healthcare problem nationwide. That system also is not perfect and I have many ideas for improving it. But again, it got passed and is being implemented. The framework is there to fix and upgrade.

In areas where the Obama administration did not have a Romney example to build on, they have spun their wheels. The economy continues to sputter. Debts continue to rise. The environment continues to degrade. We are no closer to solving our immigration problem. Our educational system falls further and further behind our competitors in other countries. Every day, it gets more and more difficult for young Americans to start at the bottom and rise to the top.

These are not Democratic issues or Republican issues. They are not problems for the government to solve by decree, or for the market to solve without government, or for individuals to solve without any help at all. These are American challenges, challenges that we must meet together, using every tool at our command.

Government, business, private charities and foundations, parents, teachers, farmers, scientists, factory workers, inventors, consumers, religious leaders, students, entrepreneurs — we all have a role to play. We all have to step up and take action if America is going to continue to lead the world.

What kind of president does America need at this crucial point in its history? Not an inspiring orator, not a mere cheerleader or a symbol or a figurehead. America needs a problem-solver, someone who can engage people of all philosophies, all religions, and all walks of life in the project of making our country great for generations to come.

America needs a president who takes pride in tackling the hard problems and finding real solutions — as I did in government in Massachusetts, in business at Bain Capital, and in the non-profit sector when I organized the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

I’m pretty liberal, so I’m not saying I definitely would have voted for that Mitt Romney. (The Bain Capital part would have been particularly hard for me to swallow.) But I would have had to think hard about it. A lot of people, even a lot of Democrats, would have had to think hard about it. Romney might have become another Eisenhower, blandly pulling together coalitions to do big things like build the interstate highway system.

But Mitt Romney turned his back on that guy. He turned his back on himself and his record. Instead of running as a leader who will listen to anybody, he has become a panderer who will say anything.

What else could he do? I understand why he did it: The Tea Party wave of 2010 should have thrown a scare into any reality-based politician, especially one hoping to win Republican primaries. But there’s more than one way to handle that situation.

  • You can fight it. Say in no uncertain terms that facts are facts, science is science, and economics is economics. You can finesse the social issues. (Traditionally in this country they have been state issues; defend each state’s right to handle marriage and guns and abortion as it sees fit.) But on health care, the economy, and the environment, stand up tall and try to hold your head above the rising tide. Call out bizarre lies like Birtherism and Obama’s Muslimhood. Stand up to the Rush Limbaughs when they become inexcusable. Even if you don’t win, you’ll become the-guy-we-should-have-listened-to. In 2016, you’ll be 69 — still young enough.
  • You can wait it out. That’s what Nixon did during the Goldwater disaster of 1964 and Jeb Bush is doing now. Express your Republican loyalty in vague terms, but don’t let the Party’s descent into the pit get you dirty. Again: 69 is not that old these days. Hillary Clinton is the same age you are — think she’s giving up?
  • You can do something else with your life. Lots of people don’t get to be president. Enjoy your quarter-billion and your beautiful family. Be Commerce Secretary in some future administration, find another Olympics to save, or chair a bipartisan commission to chart Medicare’s future. Herbert Hoover continued a respectable career of public service to age 80. You could too.

Instead, Mitt sold out to the insanity. You can tell he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, and so can the crazies. That’s how a nobody like Santorum can get so many votes, even though he and Romney are running on almost identical platforms.

The result. Not only will Mitt Romney lose this year, either at a brokered convention in the summer or to Obama in the fall, but he has trashed his brand. No one — not even most of the people voting for him — believes or trusts Romney any more. In fact, his general-election strategy depends on voters doubting his honesty: Come fall, he’ll need to convince independents that he didn’t mean any of the stuff he’s saying now.

Mitt Romney is a man of considerable ability. He could have served this country well — possibly as president or possibly some other way. Now he never will, because he wanted to be president more than he wanted to serve his country, and he tried to take a short cut to the White House rather than walk the long and winding road this era laid out for him.

Great promise undone by a single character flaw — that’s the stuff tragedy is made of.

Scary Guys Named Saul and other short notes

Last week I linked to Bill Mahr’s rant about the Republican aggrandizement and demonization of Saul Alinsky. (“The centerpiece of this campaign,” Newt Gingrich said in a televised debate, “is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.”) Tuesday, Media Matters explained why most of what is said about him is pure fantasy.

But as I explained in Propaganda Lessons From the Religious Right, the real Saul Alinsky doesn’t matter. To rally an audience that believes in the Devil’s dark conspiracy against all that is Good, you only have to identify his agents and trace their connections. It goes without saying that they are united in seeking all manner of Evil; no evidence is necessary.

If you want to see this technique in action, watch any Glenn Beck chalkboard presentation. Beck loves to identify left-wing “leaders” that most liberals have never heard of, like Frances Fox Piven. In Beck’s world, the Left is like some enormous system of Masonry, where you won’t be told who the real masterminds are until you get initiated into the 33rd level.

One reason Saul Alinsky fits so snugly into this demonic role is his name, which sounds both Jewish and foreign, like Trotsky. This might explain why Gingrich’s pitch worked in South Carolina but fell flat in Florida, where guys named Saul don’t seem all that scary.

Via the Other 98%, this historical analysis:

After “I’m not concerned about the very poor” I was planning to collect the various Mitt Romney gaffes, but Zoltan already did.

To be fairer to Mitt than President Obama’s critics typically are, the headlines Mitt makes are usually worse than what he was trying to say — even though what he meant was bad enough.

  • Corporations are people, my friend” had nothing to do with corporate personhood. He was just claiming that corporate profits ultimately get distributed to people. The fact that it’s mainly to rich people like himself isn’t a problem for Mitt, and even with that proviso I’m not convinced. Apple is sitting on $100 billion, for example, and doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to either distribute it.
  • I like being able to fire people” was about being able to change health insurance companies rather than being stuck in government monopoly. A fair point, except that (1) Like RomneyCare, ObamaCare isn’t organized as a government monopoly. Most people will continue to choose among private insurance plans. (2) Would Mitt raise a finger to stop health insurance companies merging into a private monopoly? (3) Saying “fire people” with a smile indicates that Mitt identifies mainly with the powerful.
  • I’m not concerned about the very poor” was a clumsy way of repeating Gingrich’s food stamps vs. paychecks point: the lazy poor get enough government help already. Either guy would be more convincing if his policies didn’t sum up to cutting taxes for the rich and cutting benefits for the poor. And I’m still waiting for anybody to explain why supply-side economics didn’t create jobs during the eight years when Bush tried it. I like Joan Walsh’s response: “The safety net is not a hammock.”

On the other hand, commenting on all discussions of inequality with “I think it’s about envy” is just as bad in context as you would have imagined from the headline.

Fox News really shouldn’t mess with the Muppets.

Atlantic’s Elizabeth Wurtzel makes it into this week’s short notes on the strength of good writing. As an unmarried person who seems wistful but not very hopeful about marriage, Wurtzel sees Newt Gingrich’s marital history as an island of reality in the plastic world of too-perfect political marriages.

Marriage is like Churchill’s description of democracy: the worst relationship, except for all the others. Men hate monogamy, women are pretty wayward too, being alone is absolutely awful, no one can imagine spending the rest of their lives trying to decide how to spend Saturday night after about age 36, kids seem logical, no one will love us when we’re old, we all need reunion dates, and of course, 50 years down the road, even discounting the ten or so years (hopefully not in tandem, but maybe) that were awful and that we spent making and canceling an appointment with a family lawyer almost every day at times, looking back, we had a life, and it meant something. Even though…. Even though there was a lot of even though. From the outside that looks like a happy marriage, and even happiness.

Onion News Network reports the heart-breaking story of Caitlin, a “brain dead” adolescent. Completely unresponsive to her parents, she could do little more than roll her eyes and type texts into her phone. While making the difficult decision to euthanize her, her mother says, “We just keep reminding ourselves that the real Caitlin is already gone.”

Who really writes your laws? When a Florida representative proposed a bill written by the corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council, she forgot to remove the ALEC mission statement.

If government can force abortion-seeking women to get an unnecessary ultrasound, why can’t it force men seeking Viagra to get a rectal exam?

I knew I’d seen these candidates somewhere before:

The Return of Death Panels and other short notes

Recently this topic showed up on my church’s email discussion list, so I know it’s making the rounds: An anonymous “brain surgeon” called into Mark Levin’s radio show in November, claiming to have seen a unpublished document from HHS describing “what the Obama health care plan would be for advanced neurosurgery for patients over 70.” He said:

Basically what the document stated was that if you were over 70 and you’d come into an emergency room and you’re on government supported health care, that you’d get “comfort care”.

When Levin responds “So Sarah Palin was right. We’re going to have these death panels, aren’t we?” the caller says “Oh, absolutely.”

Tuesday morning, Mariefla on Daily Kos went looking for details after she heard an outraged doctor raise the issue in a hospital staff meeting. She found this letter on the web site of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. The AANS notes “factual inaccuracies” and says the caller was not a neurosurgeon, they are not aware of any such document, and the AANS conference in which the caller supposedly saw this document never happened. They’ve asked Levin to remove the podcast from his web site, which he hasn’t.

HHS unequivocally told rumor-investigating Snopes.com: “No such document exists and no such presentation took place.”

It’s unsettling to realize how easy this kind of fraud is. Anybody can call into a radio show claiming to be anything and to have seen anything. (“I’m a retired Air Force captain and I used to work at Area 51 with the wrecked alien spaceships.”) If their story supports somebody’s propaganda, a well-oiled machine sends it rocketing around the country.

Alejandrina Cabrera was running for City Council in the Arizona border town of San Luis when her ability to speak English became an issue — not a political issue, a legal issue. The mayor filed a lawsuit remove her from the ballot.

The Enabling Act that set up Arizona’s government in 1910 says:

ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature.

And Arizona voters declared English the official language in in 2006. However, 90% of San Luis residents speak mainly Spanish. Cabrera is running to represent them, even though she speaks only “survival level English” according to a linguistics professor appointed by a Yuma county judge to test her. Wednesday, the judge ordered her name removed from the ballot.

Reader comments on the various news stories fall into two camps: Those supporting the lawsuit go on to indict local high schools for allowing her to graduate with such poor command of English, while those opposing it want the voters, not the courts, to judge candidates’ qualifications for office.

Fox News psychologist/consultant Keith Ablow explains to us why Newt Gingrich’s infidelities will make him “a strong president“. Steven Colbert observes: “Somebody without Dr. Ablow’s psychiatric insight might misdiagnose Newt as a sociopathic pussyhound.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I can’t predict how practical the Hiriko electric car will be, but it’s got an off-the-scale cute factor. If I were 3 feet tall, I’d really want this half-size prototype.

Until this week, I’ve been having trouble explaining exactly what bugs me about Mitt Romney’s corporate-raider career at Bain Capital. Sure, it looks bad to walk away with a pile of money from deals that leave so many other people unemployed or otherwise holding the bag, but wasn’t he serving the overall cause of efficiency? Doesn’t the profit come from re-purposing assets to more productive uses?

Then a Chris Hayes tweet pointed me to this 1988 paper co-authored by former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Starting with the idea that a corporation is a “nexus of contracts, some implicit, between shareholders and stakeholders”, the paper argues that hostile corporate takeovers are profitable because the new owners can renege on the corporation’s implicit commitments to workers, suppliers, retirees, and the surrounding community. The process is “wealth redistributing, not wealth creating”.

It goes on to argue that corporations’ ability to make trustworthy implicit commitments has real economic value. But corporate raids destroyed that trust for all corporations, because now all parties know that managers who try to keep such commitments when they become unprofitable are likely to be raided and replaced.

So Romney’s profit at Bain comes not just from efficiency, but also from selling the social capital of the entire corporate system.

Romney bristles whenever anyone mentions the 99% and the 1%. That’s “dividing America,” he says.

Privileged classes always blame social divisions on the people who call attention to them, rather than the people who cause them and benefit from them. The Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings are honored after they are safely dead, but while they are alive they are denounced as troublemakers. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” is his response to those who accused him of creating “tension” between the races.

So, did dead people really vote in South Carolina? No.

And finally, because I never get tired of listening to Elizabeth Warren:
Vodpod videos no longer available.

It’s Mitt Romney’s Economy

One of the major debates of the 2010 election was about whose bad economy this was: Did the mess belong to Barack Obama now, or was he still just mopping up after the disaster that was George W. Bush? Despite the merits of their case, the Democrats lost that argument, and most of Congress along with it.

As we move towards 2012, the cover article in the current New York Magazine (doesn’t young Mitt look like Mad Men‘s Don Draper?) raises an intriguing third explanation: Maybe it’s been Mitt Romney’s economy all along.

That claim seems like a stretch the first time you hear it, but it makes sense. Our 1% economy didn’t just come from government, it’s also the result of a revolution in the way corporations behave. And one of the most decorated veterans of that revolution is Mitt Romney:

Mitt Romney is the real thing. He was, by any measure, an astonishingly successful businessman, one who spent his career explaining how business might operate better, and who leveraged his own mind into a personal fortune worth as much as $250 million. But much more significantly, Romney was also a business revolutionary. Our economy went through a remarkable shift during the eighties as Wall Street reclaimed control of American business and sought to remake it in its own image. Romney developed one of the tools that made this possible, pioneering the use of takeovers to change the way a business functioned, remaking it in the name of efficiency.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with efficiency. Whether or not you think a corporation is “efficient” depends on what you think corporations are supposed to do. Romney’s revolutionary cadre of young management consultants believed that the sole purpose of a corporation was to make money for its owners — a view that is orthodox in American business today, but wasn’t in the 1970s. (It still isn’t in many other capitalist countries, like Germany.)

Whenever you change the definition of efficiency, you’re going to look around and discover lots of inefficiency, because nobody has even been trying to be efficient by your new definition. That’s what Romney saw when he came on the scene in 1975. Corporations were inefficient in all sorts of ways: Too many were unfocused conglomerates, assembled more to gratify egos than to make money. They tried to do too many things and failed to make the most productive use of their resources.

But above all, they had too many employees and paid them too much. Efficiency demanded that this be fixed, and vast profits awaited whoever would fix it.

As the Economist points out, Romney can’t claim all the credit for this transformation — otherwise he’d be Buffett/Gates rich — but nonetheless he is typical of the class of people who can. Romney worked for the consulting group Bain & Company and in 1983 led their spin-off Bain Capital.

Every business story begins with a proposition, and the one that launched Bain Capital was the notion that the partners might do better if they stopped simply advising companies and starting buying and running the firms themselves.

One obstacle to efficiency at the taken-over companies was the loyalty that some managers felt towards their workers and middle managers, but Romney had a solution for that.

In 1986, Bain Capital bought a struggling division of Firestone that made truck wheels and rims and renamed it ­Accuride. Bain took a group of managers whose previous average income had been below $100,000 and gave them performance incentives. This type and degree of management compensation was also unusual, but here it led to startling results: ­According to an account written by a Bain & Company fellow, the managers quickly helped to reorganize two plants, consolidating operations—which meant, inevitably, the shedding of unproductive labor—and when the company grew in efficiency, these managers made $18 million in shared earnings. The equation was simple: The men who increased the worth of the corporation deserved a bigger and bigger percentage of its spoils. In less than two years, when Bain Capital sold the company, it had turned an initial $5 million investment into a $121 million return.

The poster child here is the paper company AmPad. Romney bought it, took it private, re-organized, and then took it public again.

By 2001, five years after the company had been taken public, it had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. But Bain Capital made more than $100 million from AmPad for itself and its investors.

In just about every way, Romney and Bain Capital were among the trailblazers of the new economy: They destroyed both blue and white-collar jobs, cut pay at the bottom and raised it at the top, and made money even on companies that failed.

How much further ahead of his time could Romney have been?

In 2002, he became governor of Massachusetts, where he turned his attention to health care. In a rational world, RomneyCare would be his political claim to fame. Working with a Democratic legislature, Romney crafted a program that has resulted in only 4.6% of residents under 65 lacking health insurance (compared to 26.5% in Texas). But RomneyCare was the model for ObamaCare, so now Republicans hate it and Romney can’t take credit for it.

But the choice of health care as Romney’s original issue gives a lot of insight:

But what separates Romney’s plan from Obama’s—and gives some clues about his potential presidency—is its almost-accidental origin. Romney did not begin with a philosophical quest to improve American health care. He began with the idea of himself as a problem solver and asked those around him for a problem that he might usefully solve.

The picture that emerges is a little different from the one his Republican rivals paint: It isn’t that Romney changes his principles when the wind changes. It’s that principles are not fundamental to his thinking. He exhibits

the clinical separation of decision-making from ideology, the detachment of those decisions from moral consequence, a persistent blind spot for people as people.

That makes him an odd choice for a Republican Party that is more ideological and moralistic than it has ever been. And yet (though he is persistently mired in second place in the polls — seemingly behind a different leader each month), the InTrade predictive market is giving him a 70% chance to win the nomination, compared to 5.4% for current poll leader Herman Cain.

The Republican electorate longs for an authentic conservative (Bachmann) who has both charisma (Cain) and gravitas (Gingrich). But given that there isn’t one, they may have to settle for an efficient problem-solver who will say whatever they want to hear.

Next summer and fall, there will be a battle of narratives about the economy. Both parties will say that the economy is bad, but they will disagree about why. Is it bad because it is the Obama economy, hobbled by deficits, taxes, and regulations? Or is it bad because it is the Romney economy — the economy of paper profits and no jobs, the economy of the 1%?