Thursday, March 8, 2012

800 Words: The Four Levels of Republican Insanity - Level 1: Mitt Romney - The Outcast as Aristocrat

It’s one of the oddest features of American culture that for over a century, the families who’ve risen to the very top of American ‘society’, with all its 19th century connotations of an aristocratic ‘WASP’ (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) class, were not at all WASP’s themselves. Both the Kennedy and Buckley families are almost purely Irish Catholic. The Rockefellers, the Bushes, the Lodges, the Alsops, have all intermarried with so many other ethnicities as to make them nearly indistinguishable in privileges from any other absurdly wealthy family. It’s now 2012, and the very idea of an exclusively WASP aristocracy is over a hundred years dated. It has not existed since the Roosevelts blew open the door to opportunities for everybody else.

And yet there are enormous reserves of people who persist in behaving as though it does. Remarkably, they rarely ever seen to be WASP’s themselves. For the most part, these are typical American ‘mutts’, occasionally even the children of immigrants themselves who preserve traditions like the Social Register, Polo, Country Clubs, and Cotillion - as though they denote special privileges in today’s American life. Perhaps they do, but so long as the membership is so inclusive, the exclusivity of such clubs is a mere shadow of what they were a century and a half ago (and Thank God for that).

Throughout his life, Mitt Romney exhibited an exceptionally divided identity. On the one hand, he is the chair of Bain Capital and Harvard Business/Law School graduate who spent two-and-a-half years in France during a period when he otherwise could have been drafted. On the other, he is the grandson of a Mexican compound - a Mormon outcast among Mormons who worked an extra job at Stanford so he could visit his future wife (when his father could have easily paid), personally mentored thousands of less privileged co-religionists. Is Mitt Romney at heart an aristocrat to the manner born or a poor Mormon boy doing his best WASP imitation, is he neither, or is he both?

His father was certainly a self-made man, exhibiting a Lyndon Johnson like drive to raise himself from poverty by any means necessary. George Romney also exhibited the self-made man’s need for attention, blurting out whatever came into his mouth, no matter how controversial. Rick Perlstein extemporized at length about the differences between the two Romneys better than I ever could. But there is one crucial observation he failed to emphasize: for the entirety of George Romney’s ‘68 Presidential campaign, Mitt was in France.

Mitt Romney was a not particularly distinguished boarding school student who no doubt was accepted to Stanford due to family connections. He lasted a single year, then absconded to Paris - was it for academic reasons or the draft? We’ll never know, but Romney eventually received an extremely high draft number. Was that luck or his father’s influence?

Romney’s outward personality does not bear much stamp of anything except over-privilege. But one thing is abundantly clear - during his missionary work in France, Mitt Romney found himself. A student who spent his formative years in prep schools and governor’s mansions suddenly came face to face with people rejecting of his religion, beaten up by a rugby team while defending two female missionaries from harassment, and in a near-fatal car accident that killed the wife of the French Missionary president (not his fault). But by the end of his sojourn in France, Romney was the co-leader of the French missionary, overseeing almost 200 subordinates and guiding them through the chaotic riots of May 1968. The young Mitt Romney did not find self-posession in academics, or athletics, or the arts, the young Mitt Romney discovered who he was through religion.

By the age of 21, Mitt Romney was accepted as a leader in the highest echelons of a religion from which his great-grandparents were virtually cast out as heretics for their polygamy. When people compare Mitt Romney’s Mormonism to John Kennedy’s Catholicism, they ignore one crucial matter - John Kennedy never exhibited much evidence of sincere Catholic piety (Bobby’s another matter), whereas Mitt Romney’s devotion seems to emanate from his pours. Would he take dictation from Salt Lake City? Probably not, but it’s certainly not ridiculous to ask.

In some senses, Romney missed the 1960’s (by which we really mean ‘67 to ‘74) almost completely. He was in France until 1969, and he then enrolled in Brigham Young University - a place where student protests were nearly non-extant. After the newly motivated Romney graduated from BYU with high honors, he enrolled in a dual MBA/law degree program at Harvard, from which he graduated with extreme distinction. Again, Romney missed the student controversy - as he lived during that period in Belmont, Mass with his wife and first two sons. To the best of his ability, he avoided all ideological entanglements in the dogged pursuit of success.

During the next two decades, Romney was very much a businessman - rising with meteoric speed through the ranks of Bain & Company, becoming a Vice President in his second year and becoming the founding leader of a spinoff company - Bain Capital - by year 7. In his time at Bain & Company, Romney was fundamentally a consultant, known for the brazen self-confidence of his presentations and the extreme prudence of his advice, thereby acquiring a reputation as one of the best consultants in the country. The purpose of Bain Capital was to be more than simply a consultant but a veritable partner in the company, each of which would utilize Bain’s streamlining techniques to maximize profits. But true to form, Romney foundered in his first two years as President of Bain Capital. He was so risk-averse that he rejected nearly every project he was offered. Romney would not even agree to be president of the company until he negotiated a position that would put him at absolutely zero financial risk. It was only in 1986 that Romney became convinced of the growing market for office supplies and made a major investment in Staples Inc. The partnership proved so wildly successful that Romney became a multi-millionaire and sat on the board of Staples for over a decade.

Once he made his fortune with Staples, Romney proved much less risk averse. Bain capital bought many well-known companies, held them for a few years while they applied the Bain Way (streamlining and downsizing), and then sold them off at a higher value. Many of the deals in which Romney invested proved wrong, and sometimes fatal to that company. But a few of his investments proved wildly successful, and both Romney and his stockholders reaped the dividend. Romney said a number of times that his only ultimate goal was to increase shareholder value. Neither employee satisfaction nor raw business production mattered, only the money held by stockholders themselves was germane to his business model. Romney may have missed the sixties, but he was at the very focal point of the eighties.

While the employees of the other companies might have bristled at the potential layoffs, Romney was rather beloved by his own company. He rarely took more than ten percent of deals for himself, always dealt fairly with his employees, and even refused to take any profits from Bain’s Artisan Entertainment deal, since he did not want to profit from rated-R movies.

All this while, Romney was also extremely active in the Mormon church - even refusing to take overnight trips so that he could always be on call for the Boston diocese. He was a Sunday school teacher, counseled troubled members of the community, helped other Church members with home maintenance, made hospital calls, and made sure that the diocese’s finances were well cared for. Many people in the community loved him, others bristled at what they perceived as an autocratic streak which did not accommodate most deviations from church dogma. Just as in his business approach, Romney seemed cared for those under him, but only to a point. He had a extraordinarily strict sense of duty, and as he did with his employees, he seemed to look after parishioners much as a principled member of the landed gentry would to his serfs. He always ensured that they were well cared for to the best of his ability, but with a refusal to tolerate anyone acting in a manner above their station.

For two decades, Mitt Romney lived in the state of Massechussets as a registered Independent. He only switched his affiliation to Republican in 1993, sensing that Ted Kennedy was particularly vulnerable, he went after the Senate seat Kennedy held already for thrity years. When the Kennedy tried to give him a ‘conservative’ stigma for liberal Massechussets, Romney could simply counter that he was an independent for all those years and could not be held responsible for the policies of Reagan and Bush. Romney eventually lost, but he provided the only serious challenge of Kennedy’s career.

By 1999, Romney was in the midst of something resembling a mid-life crisis. His parents had both recently died, his wife was diagnosed with MS, and risk averse as ever, he still felt listless from his Senatorial loss. Romney finally regained his ‘groove’ by becoming chair of the Salt Lake City Olympics. The Olympics, previously $379 million short of its fundraising benchmarks, arrived in 2002 with a $100 million profit in spite of an extra $300 million being required for security. The overall budget of the Olympics, including highway and transit, exceeded $2.4 billion. Four months after 9/11, Romney presided over America’s first incontrovertible triumph. From there, anything was possible.

(This man is the probable Republican nominee...)

Political office was the next obvious step. But rather than run for governor in the reliably conservative Utah, Romney chose to run in Massachusetts. Romney immediately branded himself as a progressive and unpartisan Republican. When Romney became governor in 2003, the State of Massachusetts faced a $3 billion dollar deficit. Through a combination of liscence fee increases, spending cuts, and closing corporate tax loopholes, Romney ended his term with a surplus of more than $600 million.

Romney’s appointments were universally hailed as nonpartisan and expert, and he used them for surprisingly non-ideological purposes - even for a moderate Republican. Romney may not have supported the idea of universal health care himself, but when faced with the option of paying back $400 million in federal grants because too many uninsured poor people were benefiting from government-run health care, he elected to enact universal healthcare rather than pay back the money. He may not have supported gay civil unions, but he realized that it might the only way to stem the immediate demand for gay marriage. Perhaps he actually believed in both, but it’s equally possible that he viewed both as practical accommodations to the liberal ideological pressures he faced as Governor of Massachusetts.

Arthur Schlesinger once posited that there are two basic kinds of conservatism. Both originate from the rather authoritarian idea that there is a central source from which power and privilege emanate which must at all costs be preserved. But these two types of conservatism diverge on their attitudes toward those less fortunate. The first type regards it as a moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. A nobleman sees the serfs under him as his property, and therefore he must take good care of his property. They can never be his equal, but they must always be provided for. Schlesinger called this kind of conservatism ‘Aristocratic Conservatism,’ which was the conservatism of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The second type sees no moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. ‘We provide for ourselves,’ they reason, ‘so let them provide for themselves. And if they cannot, it is not our obbligation to help them.’ Schlesinger called this conservatism ‘Plutocratic Conservatism’, which was the conservatism of William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge. Mitt Romney has repeatedly shown himself to have leanings of the former type: always concern oneself with the less fortunate, but always ensure that they remember their station. For better or worse, this sort of conservatism - with its inherent elitism - is virtually banished from contemporary American Conservatism. Romney was just barely born into the upper class, and he has all the desire to maintain a facade of elitism which only those not born into it can have. The very idea of an American elite seems somehow ‘Un-American’, and has not been how anyone views this country in nearly a hundred years. Yet some people, people like Mitt Romney, feel the need to preserve that tradition. It is far preferable to some alternatives, but in 2012, it seems pretty silly.

In some sense, Romney exhibits almost the exact reverse pathologies from Bill Clinton. Over his career, Bill Clinton seems to have embraced every ideology during a period when most Democratic politicians almost eschewed ideology itself. At heart, Clinton is probably made of the same neo-liberal technocratic timbre as Michael Dukakis and Sam Nunn. But at various points in his career, he seemed almost pan-ideological, selling himself as liberal to liberals, conservative to conservatives and everything in between. Mitt Romney seems to have embraced no ideology at all during a period when the ideology of Republican politicians means everything. So if Bill Clinton has a need to seem pan-ideological, then Mitt Romney’s need is to appear aideological - with an almost pathological need to be apart from whatever ‘ism’ holds sway at the moment, and to avoid all personal entanglements that might detract from his goals. Whereas Bill Clinton was the child of poor outcasts who presented himself as a ‘democrat’ (deliberately lower-case) who could appeal to all groups, Mitt Romney is the child of a poor outcast who presents himself as an Aristocrat (deliberately upper-case) who is above the petty problems of ideology. And whereas Clinton went further than all others by giving in to unrestrained appetites and refusing to be disciplined, Romney may go just as far through nothing but restraint and discipline.

The end effect of these two opposite pathologies is almost exactly alike. We can reasonably assume that like Clinton, Mitt Romney would be a competent, practically minded president with one eye directed towards results and the other away from visionary thinking. There are certainly appealing qualities to this kind of president. But if Clinton’s presidency was hidebound by the ideological certainties of conservatives, how much more hogtied will Romney be when he can’t even depend upon liberal support for being the lesser of two evils? Bill Clinton depended on conservatives to not block his agenda, Romney depends upon Conservatives for his very election. His insanity comes from the thought that he can govern in a practical manner against a party so hogtied to so much ideology. During his years at Bain Capital, he might have made a genuinely good president. But there is no such thing as a sane man in an insane world.

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