Romney Derangement Syndrome
His GOP adversaries are criticizing private-sector success.

Mitt Romney at Bain & Co. in 1993


Avik Roy

A number of commentators have been remarking on how rarely Mitt Romney gets attacked by his opponents in the GOP debates. What’s even more remarkable is what the other candidates are attacking Romney for. Instead of calling Romney to account for his health-policy mistakes, they’re going after him for his . . . successful business career?

Romneycare, by far the largest problem with Romney’s record, was barely discussed in the last two debates. Perhaps this is because both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have previously supported the individual mandate — Santorum in the 1990s, and Gingrich as recently as May 2011 — neutralizing their effectiveness as anti-Romneycare crusaders. But this problem has led Santorum and Gingrich to attack Romney for the things conservatives should most appreciate about him.

First, Santorum and Gingrich knocked Romney for his “pious baloney” about having a career in the private sector. Romney declined to run for reelection as governor of Massachusetts in 2006, clearly because his poll numbers were bad. He was, after all, a pro-life, budget-cutting Republican governor in one of the country’s most liberal states, in a terrible year for Republicans. (Before you shout, “But Romneycare!” remember that Romneycare was Romney’s most popular achievement in Massachusetts. It’s the rest of his record that liberal Bay Staters didn’t like.)

Santorum makes the point that he himself ran for reelection despite poor poll numbers. But what else was Santorum going to do, given that he was a career politician? And let’s not forget that, if Santorum had won reelection, Democrats would not have controlled 60 Senate seats in 2009, and would not have been able to pass Obamacare. It’s not as significant a contribution to Obamacare as Romney’s signature health-care legislation, but it certainly was a factor.

Santorum and Gingrich then went on to attack Romney for his record at Bain Capital. Various conservative commentators have expressed glee at these criticisms. We might even call it Romney derangement syndrome: conservatives disliking Romney so much that they delight in Republican attacks upon free enterprise.

Saturday night, Santorum accused Romney of being a “manager,” pointing out that political leaders can lead only by persuasion, because “you can’t direct, you know, members of Congress and members of the Senate as to how you do things.”

However, as Romney pointed out, anybody who has had to try to persuade an investor to support a startup business, or a customer to use his product, or a star employee to stick around — even if that employee has a better offer somewhere else — has had to master the arts of persuasion and leadership. Santorum served only to reinforce Romney’s argument: that Santorum and other career politicians don’t understand how the private sector works.

Then, in the coup de grâce, Newt Gingrich spoke of the imminent “27-and-a-half-minute movie” coming from a pro-Newt PAC regarding Bain Capital’s economic crimes, sourced from “establishment newspapers, like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Barron’s, [and] Bloomberg News.”

Bain Capital has grown accustomed to these critiques, as they have been going on since 1994, when Ted Kennedy waged war on the firm in an effort to regain the lead against Romney in their battle for Kennedy’s Senate seat. The most recent, from today’s Wall Street Journal, notes that Bain’s investments had a higher rate of failure, but also a higher rate of spectacular success, than those of Bain’s peers.

So let’s review what it is that leveraged-buyout firms actually do. (In the interests of disclosure, I must point out that I worked for Bain Capital from 2001 to 2004, though not in the leveraged-buyout division.)