The Agenda

William Galston on Anti-Bainism

William Galston has an admirably cant-free take:


Bain matters because it goes to the heart of the core case Romney is making: The economy is broken, Obama doesn’t know how to fix it, and I do. If his rivals can undermine his record as a job-creator and substitute the narrative of Romney as a “vulture capitalist” who makes money by looting firms and firing workers, his path to the presidency becomes a lot steeper.

The only thing surprising about this issue is how late in the day it took center-stage. After all, an increasing number of blue-collar workers have become Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. The Tea Party movement is hardly sympathetic to Wall Street and the financial sector. And a key element of the Republican base—small business—has long regarded the corporate/establishment wing of the party with suspicion. As a populist whipping-boy, Romney is straight out of central casting.

So what should Romney do? His initial response—claiming that an attack on private equity firms is an attack on capitalism—may get him through the Republican nominating contest, but it won’t serve him very well in the general election. Most citizens make an intuitive distinction between business activities that add value to workers and the economy (running an auto company, for example, as Romney’s father did) and those that shuffle paper to the advantage only of the shufflers. It would be costly—perhaps fatal—for Romney to end up on the wrong side of that divide.

His campaign is wrestling with (some reports suggest divided over) how best to respond. There’s an understandable reluctance to open up to public scrutiny the nearly one hundred deals in which he participated as the head of Bain Capital. But there’s really no choice. Romney has to present a counter-narrative, and he can’t do that without talking about individual cases. If he doesn’t release details on his own terms, they’ll dribble out anyway, prolonging the pain. And besides, in a public culture now suffused with anti-elite suspicion, a rich man running for president can’t just say “Trust me”—especially if the skills that enabled him to become rich are the heart of the case he’s making for replacing an incumbent president.

Since his awkward run for the Republican nomination in 2008, Romney has shown an impressive ability to learn from his mistakes, and he has run a smart, disciplined campaign this time around. Now he faces what may be his toughest test. Can this proud and private man come to grips with the core of his public identity? Can he acknowledge the warts on his record? Can he level with the American people, or with himself? If he passes this test, he’ll be a formidable candidate. If not, he’ll end up on the defensive. If the economy doesn’t improve, it may not matter. If it does, how Romney handles his record at Bain—not in the fall, but in the next few weeks—could prove decisive. [Emphasis added]

In light of Keach Hagey’s article, this is an awkward square to circle. Mitt Romney can’t simply force Bain Capital to divulge details that may or may not be governed by non-disclosure agreements, etc., and the details may or may not be available (not just not readily available). But the folk understanding of the world is that Romney could snap his fingers and get the firm he founded to do his bidding.

Galston is valuable in part because he is capable of empathy. It is a rare quality, particularly in this line of work.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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