III. The Businessman
Why should Mitt Romney be president? He says it is because of his experience as a free-enterprise-loving businessman who has had whopping success in the private sector. On the stump, Romney praises risk-taking entrepreneurial behavior. "What makes America's economy go is individuals with dreams who take risks, borrow money from their family, max out their credit cards, maybe get an outside investor," he declared this month. He claims that President Obama doesn't understand this basic dynamic of the US economy, and Romney suggests that he himself possesses a fundamental appreciation, due to his own biography. At a Republican debate last fall, when Herman Cain challenged Romney's business record, Romney countered that he had been the CEO of a "start-up."
Announcing his presidential bid in June 2011, Romney more fully described his role as a private-sector free spirit:
Twenty seven years ago, I left a steady job to join with some friends to start a business. Like many of you, it had been a dream of mine to try and build a business from the ground up. We started in a small office a couple of hours from here and over the years, we were able to grow from ten employees to hundreds.
He was, by his own account, the embodiment of the American spirit: a risk-taking, rugged, go-for-it entrepreneur, willing to sacrifice his "steady job" for a shot at his dream.
Romney didn't leap at the chance to follow his supposed dream of building "a business from the ground up." His first instinct was to play it safe.
Not really. After graduating from Harvard University's business and law schools—not one, but two citadels of the elite!—Romney rose through the ranks of Bain & Company, a consulting firm. He so impressed Bill Bain, the head of the firm, that Bain asked Romney to oversee the creation of a private equity off-shoot, Bain Capital, which would look to buy up troubled companies, put them in order, and resell them for a profit.
And Romney said no. As recounted in The Real Romney (an essential read for anyone looking to understand the GOP candidate), Romney "saw the opportunity, of course, but he also saw risks." With five kids at home, he already had a comfortable set-up: great job at Bain & Company, money in the bank. He'd have to kick in some of the start-up funds, and he didn't want to put his present salary and financial resources on the line. That is, he didn't leap at the chance to follow his supposed dream of building "a business from the ground up." His first instinct was to play it safe and not be a daring entrepreneur.
Bill Bain made it safe for Romney. He told the young biz-wiz that if Bain Capital flopped, Romney could have his old job back—and all the salary increases he might have missed. But this wasn't enough insurance for Romney, who worried his reputation might be tainted should he fail to deliver at the new enterprise. Bain promised that if Romney had to come back to Bain & Company, he'd tell people that was because the consulting firm needed Romney desperately. "So," Bain later said to Kranish and Helman, "there was no professional or financial risk" for Romney.
Romney was given a golden elevator. And he made the most of it. But his path to becoming a quarter-billionaire is hardly a classic tale of risk-defying entrepreneurship.
Romney's serial denials of past positions have partly shaped his public political persona. He was for gun control measures, now he's not. He favored climate change action, now he doesn't. He was a fan of individual health care mandates, now he decries Obamacare. His craven flexibility was perhaps best epitomized when he tried to explain to Kranish and Helman why during the 1994 Senate campaign he had written a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, a pro-gay rights group, asserting a desire "to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens." He told the reporters, "well, okay, let's look at that in the context of who it's being written to." Romney, in this moment of candor, was inadvertently admitting he was an unapologetic panderer.
That was an exception. Romney tends to reject charges of flip-flopping, as he did in his unsuccessful interview last November with Fox News' Bret Baier. And this is to be expected. To be a credible candidate, Romney cannot acknowledge his long list of 180s. (Nor can he dwell on his years as governor of Massachusetts, where his signature accomplishment was health care reform that was the basis for Obama's initiative.) But his refutation of the past extends beyond the politician's traditional refusal to acknowledge previous positions that have since become inconvenient. He has adopted an overly flexible attitude toward his personal history, showing that he is an unreliable source of information about himself. If he cannot tell his own tale accurately, can he be trusted to tell the nation's?