Thursday, October 04, 2012

Letting Romney Off

Debate host Jim Lehrer asked President Obama and former Governor Romney last night "do you believe there's a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?"  The President responded (and ask someone to awaken you midway through):

The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe. That's its most basic function. And as commander in chief, that is something that I've worked on and thought about every single day that I've been in the Oval Office.

But I also believe that government has the capacity — the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed. Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system, and freedom, and the fact that people can go out there and start a business, work on an idea, make their own decisions.

But as Abraham Lincoln understood, there are also some things we do better together.

So in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, let's help to finance the Transcontinental Railroad. Let's start the National Academy of Sciences. Let's start land grant colleges, because we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans, because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we're all going to be better off. That doesn't restrict people's freedom; that enhances it.
And so what I've tried to do as president is to apply those same principles. And when it comes to education, what I've said is we've got to reform schools that are not working. We use something called Race to the Top. Wasn't a top-down approach, Governor. What we've said is to states, we'll give you more money if you initiate reforms. And as a consequence, you had 46 states around the country who have made a real difference.

But what I've also said is let's hire another hundred thousand math and science teachers to make sure we maintain our technological lead and our people are skilled and able to succeed. And hard-pressed states right now can't all do that. In fact, we've seen layoffs of hundreds of thousands of teachers over the last several years, and Governor Romney doesn't think we need more teachers. I do, because I think that that is the kind of investment where the federal government can help. It can't do it all, but it can make a difference, and as a consequence, we'll have a better-trained workforce, and that will create jobs, because companies want to locate in places where we've got a skilled workforce.

It was, of course, a question in the wheelhouse of almost any GOP candidate, a vague, general question designed to elicit vague, general answers, the kind Republicans specialize in.   Still, a blogger at DailyKos notes that Obama's response could have included the explanation that

Private actors are looking out for themselves, not for you.  Government agencies are run in the public interest, or at least they have a duty to be (regulatory capture is a big problem, but the solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater).  Competitive markets work great in many cases, but many essential services are difficult for the private sector to efficiently provide--without either wasteful duplication or monopolistic rent seeking.

All completely true and important, but every bit as boring as Obama's response.  As long as Barack Obama  chose his debate theme as the need to impose austerity to tackle the deficit, he might have reminded voters- or better yet, his opponent- of Mitt Romney's debt-ridden role at Bain Capital.  He should have used Matt Taibbi's description in Rolling Stone five weeks ago of Mitt Romney as

fantastically rich, having scored great success, the legend goes, as a "turnaround specialist," a shrewd financial operator who revived moribund companies as a high-priced consultant for a storied Wall Street private equity firm. But what most voters don't know is the way Mitt Romney actually made his fortune: by borrowing vast sums of money that other people were forced to pay back. This is the plain, stark reality that has somehow eluded America's top political journalists for two consecutive presidential campaigns: Mitt Romney is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time. In the past few decades, in fact, Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth...

A man makes a $250 million fortune loading up companies with debt and then extracting million-dollar fees from those same companies, in exchange for the generous service of telling them who needs to be fired in order to finance the debt payments he saddled them with in the first place. That same man then runs for president riding an image of children roasting on flames of debt, choosing as his running mate perhaps the only politician in America more pompous and self-righteous on the subject of the evils of borrowed money than the candidate himself.

This "gambit," Taibbi explains

stands as an emblem for the resiliency of the entire sociopathic Wall Street set he represents. Four years ago, the Mitt Romneys of the world nearly destroyed the global economy with their greed, shortsightedness and – most notably – wildly irresponsible use of debt in pursuit of personal profit. The sight was so disgusting that people everywhere were ready to drop an H-bomb on Lower Manhattan and bayonet the survivors. But today that same insane greed ethos, that same belief in the lunatic pursuit of instant borrowed millions – it's dusted itself off, it's had a shave and a shoeshine, and it's back out there running for president.

Taibbi identifies Romney as cozy with Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, and the other "hucksters" who have been conducting

decades-long campaign in which the old, simple, let's-make-stuff-and-sell-it manufacturing economy was replaced with a new, highly complex, let's-take-stuff-and-trash-it financial economy. Instead of cars and airplanes, we built swaps, CDOs and other toxic financial products. Instead of building new companies from the ground up, we took out massive bank loans and used them to acquire existing firms, liquidating every asset in sight and leaving the target companies holding the note. The new borrow-and-conquer economy was morally sanctified by an almost religious faith in the grossly euphemistic concept of "creative destruction," and amounted to a total abdication of collective responsibility by America's rich, whose new thing was making assloads of money in ever-shorter campaigns of economic conquest, sending the proceeds offshore, and shrugging as the great towns and factories their parents and grandparents built were shuttered and boarded up, crushed by a true prairie fire of debt. 

Cut out some of the invective (which Taibbi is fond of), such as referring (albeit accurately) to Romney and Ryan as "pompous and self-righteous," Wall Street executives as "shifty-eyed huckster" or "jerkwad," and billions of dollars as "assloads of money," and you have two-thirds of Americans jumping off their sofa and cheering.    As a bonus, Mitt Romney would have gone ballistic and self-destructed.  (True, Jim Lehrer might have had a heart attack and Bill Clinton, Cory Booker, and Ed Rendell would have put out a contract on Obama, but the President does have Secret Service protection.)

Of course, this didn't happen, and won't happen, for Obama is loathe to incur any more enmity from the finance, insurance, or real estate sector.  He was anxious to avoid the issue of Bain Capital, as Mitt Romney generally does, probably because it enhances his image as rapacious and greedy.

The President was presented a golden opportunity to sharpen his differences with Romney when Lehrer opened a new topic by stating "All right? All right, this is this is segment three, the economy, entitlements.  First answer goes to you. It's two minutes. Mr. President, do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?"

A few moments into a boring response, Obama half-heartedly remarked " that's the perspective I bring when I think about what's called entitlements. You know, the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks."    His response should have been more direct and decisive by correcting the host on the term "entitlements," noting they instead are "earned benefits," and lashing out at Mitt Romney for targeting the elderly surviving on Social Security benefits.

But Barack Obama did not seize the opportunity, which was, hopefully, merely bad strategy rather than an indication that a re-elected President will go all in for a grand bargain.

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