Sunday, September 02, 2012

Romney's Leadership is About Calculation, Not Experimentation

On the whole, I think Ross Douthat's column on Romney offers a decent summary of the dilemma of electing the man:
If there was a persistent and persuasive theme in his convention address, and in Ann Romney’s as well, it didn’t have anything to do with deficits or taxes or Medicare reform or foreign policy. It was the promise of hard work — work on behalf of “you and your family,” work in pursuit of “jobs, lots of jobs,” work that would “solve the problems that others say can’t be solved” and “fix what others say is beyond repair.”

One can hear in this rhetoric a kind of right-of-center rhyme to Roosevelt’s campaign promise of “bold, persistent experimentation,” his exhortation to “above all, try something,” without necessarily specifying what that something might be.

This parallel is not necessarily an advertisement for Romney. Liberal nostalgia notwithstanding, Roosevelt flailed as often as he flourished, and boldness and experimentation untempered by principle and modesty have been responsible for many more recent presidential failures as well.

But if you’re looking for a best-case scenario for a Romney presidency, you have to hope that his Mr. Fix-It impulses will work out for the best — and that rather than being a model of moderation or a paragon of purity, he’ll be a president who tries, and tries, and ultimately gets things right.
There's no "not necessarily" about it. Although Douthat attempts to emphasize Romney's "CEO" credentials, his criticism of Hoover's failures neglects to mention that Hoover, also, had been a phenomenally successful businessman before becoming President. An orphan at age 9, by 1914 Hoover's fortune is estimated at $4 million - roughly the equivalent of a $90 million fortune today.

Further, in the wake of Nixon's "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam, the nation has not been very trusting that secret plans exist, let alone that they will work. Asking us to assume first that Romney has a "secret plan" to fix the economy, completely at odds with what he's actually stating that he will do if elected, is bad enough. Asking us to believe we should vote for a candidate upon another layer of assumption (our having first assumed that the plan exists) that the "secret plan" will work? Our nation tends to have a poor memory of history, but I hope not that poor.

Another point of contrast is that, although Douthat apparently sees it as a point for attack ("Roosevelt flailed as often as he flourished"), that was in essence what FDR promised ("bold, persistent experimentation"). If you want to see that in the business world, look at the late Steve Jobs, a man whose flaws have now been extensively picked over, but who also demonstrated a fantastic ability to foster innovation. His mistakes prior to his ouster from Apple were big enough to make his ouster understandable. He took over Pixar with the intention of making computers to movie-makers and, when he realized that his plan would not work, he ended up making movies. He took huge risks when he returned to a floundering Apple, throwing out it's old OS in favor of the UNIX-based OS he had developed at NeXT. He made many mistakes, and ushered in many failed products and ventures. I wouldn't have wanted him to be President but I respect his ability to bounce back from failure, to learn from his mistakes, and to change his business plans when his assumptions proved incorrect.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was all about due diligence. That can be a great thing in a money man - analyze the deal, crunch the numbers, and figure out what deals will be profitable before proceeding. If you do it poorly, you end up with a fiasco like the AOL-Time Warner merger or Daimler-Chrysler. If you do it well, you make a ton of money. By all appearances, Mitt Romney was an excellent money man. But that type of work is about avoiding risk - finding the "sure thing". It's about as far from "bold, persistent experimentation" as you can get. There's also some humility in arguing that experimentation is necessary, as it implies that you know you don't have all the answers. Romney takes the opposite approach, implying that he does have all the answers but doesn't care to tell us what they are.

I'm also reminded of President Obama's candidacy, four years ago, when people were arguing that they weren't sure what he stood for. A few commentators, such as Daniel Larison, shouted from the sidelines, "Look at his records. Look at his words. It's no secret what he stands for or how he'll govern." With Romney we're asked not to look at his records or his words, to assume that anything in his past history that is inconsistent with our own beliefs was a sham and that he'll somehow be everything to everyone when elected.

Either way we can apply Obama's borrowed phrase, "The audacity of hope", to the voters who project their own ideals onto the candidate. But while you actually could figure out roughly where Obama stood from his record and statements, you can make no safe assumption about Romney. Even Douthat, trying to build his case, speaks in terms of the odds - what's "likely" - and states his hope for how Romney will govern, but while making what seem to be reasonable comments about Romney's character ("play-it-safe strategy"; "studied vagueness and generic Republican rhetoric; if elected his primary motivator will "be in making his first term a success" - which, translated from politician-speak means his number one priority will be getting reelected) he's really falling back on hope.

Note that the language Douthat asks us to fall back upon to reassure us about Romney,
[T]he promise of hard work — work on behalf of “you and your family,” work in pursuit of “jobs, lots of jobs,” work that would “solve the problems that others say can’t be solved” and “fix what others say is beyond repair.”
is nothing but a series of platitudes. When did we last have a presidential candidate who did not promise all of that?1 Douthat argues, "One can hear in this rhetoric a kind of right-of-center rhyme" and implied promise to offer FDR-style "bold, persistent experimentation", but only if one wants to. If one looks at the actual words, they're hollow, tired and meaningless. And when you look at the few specifics, such as the promise to "create" over the next four years pretty much the exact number of jobs the economy is already projected to create2, it's actually discouraging.

Douthat's projection onto Romney of characteristics inconsistent with anything in his record, the personality of a Mr. Fix-it who tries until he gets things right, as opposed to a careful, deliberate man who got where he is (up to the point that shifts within his party made so many of his past achievements and political positions a liability) through careful planning and the studied avoidance of mistakes.

Douthat's comments remind me of Shimon Peres's assessment of Obama:
Obama is an honest man. He's made some stupid mistakes in the Middle East, but he's learned, and he's a serious man. Before Obama, the American military establishment had no plans, no preparations for Iran; now they do.
That is to say, if Douthat wants a person who studies problems, plans for contingencies, takes chances when necessary, and adapts his approach and policies based upon the outcomes produced, the guy in the White House appears to be his man. The numbers guy he's instead backing has a very different style of management, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but suggests that he will be anything but the type of leader for whom Douthat pines. A Romney presidency is likely to be a studied exercise in mistake avoidance. Not a President "who tries, and tries, and ultimately gets things right", but one who studies and number crunches in order to try to avoid mistakes, and who appears to follow the unfortunate tendency of many business and political leaders to take credit for anything good that happens under his watch while attributing any mistake or failure to other people or to factors outside of his control.

Douthat falls back on a rhetorical tool with which I've become a bit bored, essentially "liberals think this, conservatives think that, they're both wrong." Douthat argues that "On the left, it’s an article of faith that the Republican nominee is effectively a hostage to the [extreme right]". He's confusing the political strategy of Obama's reelection team with what people actually believe. Pretty much everybody I've spoken with on the left agrees with Douthat's sentiment that Romney does little but tell people "roughly what they want to hear", and that you can't draw any inferences from his demagoguery. Their tendency is to assume that his past centrism and ability to work with the Massachusetts Democratic Party better reflects his beliefs than his present rhetoric - the same type of projection Douthat displays, but from a different angle.

Douthat tells us that the political right "may be misreading the import of the Ryan pick" and that the pick also benefits Romney by "transforming a spokesman for conservatism into a salesman for the Romney White House’s agenda". Douthat drinks a bit of the Kool-Aid, arguing that the selection of Ryan is "no doubt a sign that Romney intends to pursue at least some of Ryan’s entitlement reform proposals once in office" - there are reasons to believe that Romney will propose "entitlement reform", but the selection of Ryan isn't one of them. I'm also not seeing the conservatives Douthat describes, any significant population that has become convinced that Romney will tackle entitlements in a serious way. On the contrary, the pick seems to be waking a lot of people up to the fact that Ryan's reform proposals aren't either serious or economically sound. If you want a balanced budget, Ryan's not your man.3

I had a discussion with a conservative friend a few months back in which I expressed discontent with Romney's mendacity and his game of "hide-the-ball" on his beliefs and policy positions, and that if Romney were honest about his beliefs he might reveal a man who was qualified for the Presidency. It was my friend who responded skeptically. I don't have much patience for phonies, but he has next to none. We both agreed on this: If Romney were honest about his beliefs, no matter what they were, it would diminish his chance to become President. Politically speaking, he's better of being a screen upon which we can project our hopes. President Obama was happy enough to allow people to project their hopes onto him, but at least with Obama you could figure out where he stood if you chose to pay attention. With Romney, except with regard to how he managed Bain, you simply cannot know.
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1. I did a quick search and came up with a gem from Dick Cheney in 2004,
Because of the Bush tax cuts, nearly 5 million Americans no longer pay any federal income taxes at all. Families bear a lighter burden, because we doubled the child credit and [decreased] the marriage penalty.
Then a point of pride; now a basis to accuse those very same people of being moochers. Cheney also argued, "To create more jobs, we will work hard to make America an even better place to do business."

2. I've previously poked fun at Romney's secret jobs plan.

3. I remain convinced that the Ryan pick was much more about sending a message to big donors, "We're not going to touch your taxes, even if it means big deficits."

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