Pompous hypocrisy and opportunism go hand in glove — or mitt, if you prefer. In politics it is both a perk and a prerequisite. There’s almost no such thing as a good slogan, soundbites are so ubiquitously regurgitated the words become reduced to drivel (to say nothing of the sincerity of the sentiment), and either we throw ourselves to the thrall of Revival-like electioneering crusades at the expense of our better judgment and reason, or we close our ears to it like classically trained cynics (no less at our rational expense); we tune in or tune out the tinny prattle of campaign patois, depending on our preset dials. Along with the grandstanding, posturing, preening, and pandering, this is all to be expected. But there is a tenuous snapping point to a candidate’s inconsistencies stretched beyond the torque of mere contradiction when he becomes not merely a raving, flaming, laughable fraud, but something troublingly worse: a man with no meaning. Such is the rhetoric of Romney.
Enough time and attention has been paid already to Romney’s self-contradicting complaint that Rick Santorum was encouraging “mischief” amongst Michigan Democrats to vote for him, Santorum, since the Wolverine state is an open primary; thus actual Democrats could vote for the weaker of two Republican candidates as a tactical move with the general election in mind. Whether this is something of which to be guilty in the first place — a la is all truly fair in love and war, or politics? — is another matter altogether, but given that Romney himself participated in the same kind of canny shenanigans in open Massachusetts primaries — most notably for Paul Tsongas in 1992 — there’s a foul whiff of Pecksniffery when he accuses Santorum of employing “the dirty tricks of a desperate campaign.” (One wonders how Romney voted during the last presidential election cycle or what he thought of Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Mayhem,” which encouraged Republicans nationwide to torpedo the process by voting for Hillary Clinton in open primaries.)
But that’s yesterday’s-news chatter. What’s more revealing yet is when Romney castigates Obama over the auto bailout program and even accuses the latter of “crony capitalism,” while Bain Capital — Romney’s baby multi-billion dollar asset management and investment firm — was bailed out by the federal Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) in 2001, after a steel industry it became the majority shareholder of in 1993 closed down (after being in existence since 1888). To the tune of $44 million, PBGC rescued the underfunded pension plan for the 750 steelworkers who had lost their jobs, all while Bain Capital itself received $12 million in its initial $8 million investment, together with an additional $4.5 milllion in consulting fees. Universally recognized is the success of Obama’s auto industry bailout, but Mitt would nitpick and call his Bordeaux’s grapes sour. Indeed, he has done as much in so many words, first in a New York Times op-ed in November of 2008 entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” (though he probably meant “eat cake”), then again more recently in The Detroit News. The tonal distinction between the two could be described as the difference between concede and conceit. Not without a valedictory undercurrent, in the Times piece he is addressing America itself and doing so after he not only lost his party’s nomination, but after his party lost the election. In The Detroit News he is once again an aspiring politician on the stump, one uncomfortably in between heir apparent and anybody-but-him, before his home state’s contentious primary. (If nothing else, it is worth noting that he plugs the bugaboo term “union bosses” no fewer than three times.)
True conservative philosophy (traces of which are almost as rare as Dodo DNA samples) would have a given company — let’s say one that makes cars — file for bankruptcy and restructure itself to be leaner and meaner in a competitive economy, supposedly. And supposedly this is what Romney’s druthers were. Neither true conservatism nor Mitt Romney’s stance du jour sees any role in a federal government “meddling” in the internal combustion of the free market. By contrast, liberalism (which President Obama occasionally shows glimmers of) advocates a more active role of the government. This is a philosophical question in and of itself to be addressed elsewhere. It is telling, however, that when a pretty far-right Republican governor the likes of Michigan’s Rick Snyder can’t help but accept the success of Obama’s auto bailout and welcome what it has done for Detroit. Let’s call this the opposite of NIMBYism, when one is against such-and-such a policy unless it happens in one’s backyard and is beneficial. Governor Snyder’s turned-around attitude either shows the true colors of his own opportunistic apostasy, shameless as it may be, or gives us all a moment of hope that even someone so otherwise doctrinal can see the light of easing extremism; demonstrating moderate flexibility for the good of the public (a lesson some Wisconsin Republicans might care to take note of).
You know something ain’t right (or Right) when none other than Newt Gingrich calls Bain Capital’s practices into question. The puckish imp Newt urged on Fox News: “It’s legitimate to ask the question — and this is the whole Wall Street problem — how come the big boys made a lot of money and [others] went broke? And that’s not an attack on capitalism. That’s not an issue about the whole capitalist system. That is a question about a very particular style of activity involving a very particular person.” Dirty tricks of a desperate campaign indeed.
But the worst of Mitt’s meaninglessness can be parsed in his acceptance speech in Michigan last night. “Our campaign is about restoring the promise of America,” he proclaimed. “From generation to generation, Americans have always known that the future would be brighter and better. Americans have always believed in a tomorrow full of possibility and prosperity.” He continued, “If you teach your kids the right values and help them make the right choices, you know their future will be prosperous and secure.” Unless you work in a steel mill that had been in existence since before Mitt’s famous governor-father was born. What would Mitt know about being taught the right values or about brighter and better futures? He was born into lavish wealth and prestige, and how he makes his money today is entirely through unearned income. At the helm of Bain Capital Romney’s wage averaged $6,400 an hour while the firm either created lots of pittance-paying jobs or flat out eliminated positions. And at the end of any banner year he was taxed at the 15 percent rate, significantly lower than anyone working the lowest-paying job created or destroyed by Bain. Romney has as much authority to talk about the promise of America as the king of the jungle has dishing out advice to newborn gazelles or the head of Rolls Royce having a heart-to-heart with a grease-monkey tinkering under the hood of a Yugo.
For Romney even to talk about this is as well-mannered and manicured a script as Sir Laurence Olivier playing Oliver Twist. It’s not just hallow, or hypocritical — it’s beyond that, it’s post-have you no sense of decency?. It’s the syntax of a real estate developer named Bulldozer sickly mimicking halcyon notions of growing gardens and nurturing seeds. It’s irony in the subtlest but most fantastically metastasizing sense. Romney promised not to set his hair afire to get out the vote in Michigan, but he might as well have. Not just in the sense that he’s a liar — he is, but how many politicians aren’t? — but that his shamelessness is so white-hot as to be luciferous.
Wake-up call to Romney: the American Dream works only when one’s feet are firmly planted on the ground, not when the rug is pulled from under one’s feet by bloated corporate greed or vulture-ventured investment groups that rake windfall profits from another company’s demise like a bunch of parasitic necrophiliacs. And suddenly leave John and Jane American with no pension, paycheck, or healthcare.
Bad puns about cars and motor city aside, this election might as well be a highway; and either Main Street is under construction, oncoming traffic yield to Wall Street, or the other way around. And no city knows this better than Detroit.