Mitt Romney, now the winner of his party’s first two contests in the 2012 presidential race, loves capitalism. He’s eager to brag about his experience in the private sector, as do his supporters. Democrats and GOP presidential opponents love to point out that Romney’s resume is littered with bankrupt companies and laid-off employees.
None of it matters.
For one thing, as Paul Krugman noted recently in The New York Times, Romney is inflating his job-creating prowess while he was at private equity firm Bain Capital. The former Massachusetts governor’s claim that he created more jobs — 100,000 — than President Obama, who Romney says lost about 2 million, also is suspect. Romney’s record, which is hardly shocking considering that he invested in distressed companies, is also ancient history: He left Bain in 1992.
Being president is much different than being a distressed financier. Commanders-in-chief work for the people instead of a small group of shareholders, a board of directors or investors. They need to think of the greater good instead of profits. Leaders of corporations often say they’re not trying to win any popularity contests, which is precisely what politicians need to do to get elected.
Translating success in the private sector into the public sector is far from a given. While media mogul Mike Bloomberg has performed well as mayor of New York City, many other corporate titans such as Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman and Linda McMahon weren’t able to get themselves elected to public office despite spending millions of their own private-sector-earned money.
Romney’s growth as a politician shows he learns from his mistakes, a critical skill for a president. Another plus was his ability to persuade Democrats to go along with his policies in Massachusetts, some of which — like health care reform — he’s distancing himself from today.
Romney had honed his skills as a campaigner during his 1994 challenge to Massachusetts’ legendary Senator Edward Kennedy. The liberal lion portrayed him as a cold-hearted capitalist. Sound familiar? The strategy worked, although Romney did give Kennedy toughest reelection fight of his career.
In 2002, Romney ran for the Republican nomination for governor after the state’s first woman governor, Jane Swift, pulled out of the running. Swift was a Republican who was appointed to the job in April 2001 after Paul Cellucci stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to Canada. She was deeply unpopular with voters after critcs lambasted her for, among other things, using state workers to watch her young children and for improper use of a state helicopter.
Romney artfully navigated questions raised by Democrats about his residency and deflected charges from his opponent, Shannon P. O’Brien, that he was an out-of-touch elitist. Voters in Massachusetts were ready for change.
“The Republican party had owned the corner office for 12 years, but neither Romney nor his running mate [Kerry] Healey had ties to government, the GOP’s own cronyism, or oversight of the granddaddy of all messes — the cost overruns and mismanagement of the $14.6-billion Big Dig highway project in Boston,” according to a 2007 Boston Globe profile.
Besides the Massachusetts health care reform law, Romney also closed a $3 billion deficit without raising taxes, had state schools rank first in national math and science tests and pushed the legislature into enacting a tough new drunk-driving law. Romney decided not to run for reelection so that he could begin his first run for the presidency.
His changing views on abortion and his opposition to gay marriage will play well with Republican primary goers and less so in the general election. On his website, Romney vows if elected to “rebuild the foundations of the American economy on the principles of free enterprise, hard work, and innovation.” That sounds like something a management consultant would say.
Maybe Romney should avoid the management-consultant speak: He needs to realize that Americans elect presidents who can engage and inspire them. They’re not so interested in a bottom-line obsessed corporate executive whose love for capitalism knows no bounds.