Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 January 2012

Why Romney Would Make a Bad President

[For eleven questions that moderators should try to ask at remaining presidential debates, click here.]

In at several places on this blog (1, 2 and 3), I have dinged Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper and a jerk. Now that he appears to have the presumptive nomination within his grasp, it’s appropriate to take a closer look.

He’s not running on his successful health-care program in Massachusetts, at least not in the GOP! That program is much too close to the so-called “Obamacare” that he continually bashes in his stump speeches.

And he’s certainly not running on his chameleon approach to social issues, which made him a social moderate in Massachusetts and an ersatz social conservative today. People like me might not care much because we don’t think those issues matter at a national level, and anyway we think Romney is lying now, not then.

So what makes Romney nearly the presumptive GOP nominee?

Two things, I think, help him stand out. First, he’s supposed to be a good debater. He’s had a lot of practice, so he comes on like the alpha-est of the alpha males competing in the penis-matching contests that pass for “debates” in our celebrity-obsessed and sick democracy. He’s got the good riposte and the glib line.

Second, he does have successful business experience. He started a successful business consulting firm called Bain Capital and made well over a hundred million dollars running it for about a decade.

So let’s analyze whether those qualities and that experience would make him a good president.

Romney’s glib ripostes can sound good to the average voter, especially when delivered with his trademark self-confidence. But do they actually makes sense when analyzed coldly? I think not.

One of his most famous one-liners came during the 2008 campaign. He accused then-candidate Barack Obama of being like Jane Fonda one day and Doctor Strangelove the next.

You had to be over fifty even to understand what he was talking about—a point that tells you something about Romney’s favored demographic. Jane Fonda is the American actress who went to North Vietnam several times during the Vietnam War, in order to protest it, and whom many Republicans consider a traitress. Dr. Strangelove was the fictional character in the movie of the same name, who sought nuclear Armageddon with the Soviets. What Romney was referring to was Obama’s willingness to talk to our enemies, including Iran and the Taliban, without preconditions, and his plan to pursue Al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and Zawahiri into Pakistan if necessary.

Romney’s jibe may have sounded good at a fraternity party—a frat boy one-liner. But in substance it was precisely and spectacularly wrong. Talking with our enemies led to mutual disarmament with the Soviets and eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, every president (except Dubya) since Jack Kennedy had pursued a policy of talking with our enemies without preconditions. As for bin Laden, pursuing him into Pakistan was precisely what eventually brought him justice, under President Obama’s command.

A similarly erroneous one-liner appeared in Saturday night’s New Hampshire debate. Huntsman criticized Romney for being willing to start a trade war with China—an outcome that would be catastrophic for both sides. Romney responded by saying that China sells far more to us them we to it, so it has more to lose in a trade war, giving us leverage. The clueless moderators gave Huntsman no chance for rebuttal.

That riposte may have sounded good to the thoughtless or uniformed. The Chinese do indeed sell far more to us than we to them. But that’s the point. Go into any Wal-Mart, Lowe’s or Home Depot in our land. Pick up any product at random. Chances are it will say “Made in China.” My wife and I recently put up an artificial Christmas tree she had bought a decade ago. “Product of China,” its packaging said.

What would happen if we put tariffs on all those products that we buy and use every day, or otherwise restricted their imports? Retail prices would go up, sparking inflation, and/or we would have the kinds of shortages that Soviet consumers suffered in their worst days.

Maybe American voters aren’t smart enough to understand this economic cause and effect. But the Chinese are. So the simple trade imbalance that Romney cited gives us no leverage with the Chinese, who are smart enough to know the consequences of a trade war for both sides. They know that, no matter how much we act like cowboys, at the end of the day we won’t shoot ourselves in the foot.

In order to deal with the Chinese, Romney needs to do more than be smarter than the average Republican voter. He needs to be as smart or smarter than the Chinese themselves. His frat-boy one liner gave no evidence that he is. It just showed that he’s as willing to dupe the American voter on matters of economics as he is about his positions on abortion and health care.

But Romney’s forte is his business success. Let’s give the devil his due. I have criticized his downsizing other people’s companies. But there’s nothing wrong with that if downsizing helps those companies survive when they otherwise wouldn’t. Downsizing can save jobs and businesses, if it’s a last resort. After all, I laud the President’s bailout of GM, and that’s precisely what it did: downsize and refinance GM in order to save it and the jobs it provided.

But let’s look at what Romney did more closely. In downsizing the companies he saved, Romney had the whip hand all the way. In many cases they were smallish companies with family or entrenched management unfamiliar with modern business methods. Romney came in with his Harvard M.B.A., modern quantitative methods of analysis and cost cutting, and investors ready to provide massive capital infusions on his recommendation. When he said jump, management and shareholders, who wanted to salvage whatever they could, asked “How high?” on the way up.

How does that experience translate into a presidency? Not very well.

In dealing with China, for example, Romney as president would not be dealing with a failing company whose leaders were looking for any way out. He would be dealing with a rising global power, likely to become the world’s leading economic power within the decade. With three trillion dollars of foreign reserves, China is far more solvent than we are. And Romney has nothing to tell the Chinese, who have been practicing quantitative business methods and beating us at our own game for two decades.

In downsizing his clients as a consultant, Romney was dealing from a position of absolute strength. He wasn’t operating from a position of equality or weakness, as we must with the Chinese and our other allies and rivals. In that circumstance, diplomacy is much more likely to succeed than frat-boy one-liners or a false (and offensive!) air of command. Dubya and Hank Paulson tried the commanding approach with China and got nowhere.

That same analysis applies here at home. Congressional gridlock will continue even if Romney wins this year’s presidential election. With the Senate’s filibuster rules and senators’ individual “holds” still supreme, Romney won’t be able to say “Jump!” as he did consulting for failing companies. He will have to persuade members of Congress and bargain with them as equals in order to make any progress at all.

Does anything in his history or personality suggest that he would be particularly good at that? He’s cocky, arrogant and glib. His frat-boy one-liners might amuse right wing average voters. They will not amuse Chinese ministers or ambassadors or Democratic members of Congress.

To make progress with China or Congress—or Russia or Europe, for that matter—you have to know how to bargain with equals and from a position of real or perceived weakness. Nothing in Romney’s history shows that he has any particular experience or skill in doing that. That sort of thing—which we call “diplomacy”—is Huntsman’s forte.

Under circumstances of international conflict, Romney’s approach would be even worse. Dubya proved as much by getting us into two unnecessary wars, among the longest in our history. Assuming your rivals’ or enemies’ stupidity and trying to “take command” in a system of serious international conflict is not the best way to avoid war.

In order to avoid war or win it, you must know your rival or enemy and its alien culture. Romney’s language experience is in French, hardly an alien culture like Iran’s, North Korea’s, or even Russia’s or China’s. His bluster and saber rattling with respect to Iran may serve him well with a right-wing electorate, but it won’t in dealing with the real world as president. Coupled with his total absence of military service and experience, it makes him a dangerous man.

I have written a whole essay about the military tragedies that failure to appreciate alien cultures can cause. I won’t repeat it here. But I will say that treating a foreign nation like a failing company in need of help from Wall Street would be just as dangerous as treating its leaders like American pols, as Lyndon Jonhson tried to do in Vietnam.

One of the many aspects of fuzzy thinking in current Republican dogma is the notion that “leadership” in American business translates easily into leadership in other fields. American business operates under known, stable and fair rules of conduct, which rely on a common culture and set of laws. The rest of the world does not. Nor does war.

The notion that Mitt Romney’s special brand of business experience makes him qualified to resolve conflicts and win wars with utterly alien cultures is a complete non-sequitur. It’s an error of logic that could cost us as dearly as our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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