Mitt Romney is an idiot or, even worse, is pretending to be one. His tantrum of a response on Thursday to the Supreme Court’s health care decision was pure playground: As president I will own the ball, and the game will be played by rules that leave me a winner.
That game has already been called in a decision written by the top-ranking conservative jurist, and shorn of the constitutional objection; Barack Obama’s health care plan now will be judged by its practical outcomes. Romney’s promise that “I will act to repeal Obamacare” from “my first day as president of the United States” is a prescription of destructive gridlock for a program already well under way.
By immediately committing to reverse a health care reform based on the very program he implemented as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has gone to war with himself. Obviously, neither he nor his advisers has yet grasped that the decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts has changed the terms of the debate.
The issue is no longer one of states’ rights. That would have been the case if the court had relied on the Constitution’s commerce clause, leaving Romney to argue that it was legal for his state to have required a mandate but is illegal for the feds to do so. However, the court decision, based as it is on the right of the government to raise taxes to pay for a public need, makes the states’ rights claim irrelevant.
The issue faced by the court was the same on the federal level as it was on the state level; if the public, through its government, must ultimately bear the cost of caring for the uninsured—as would be so in any society possessed of even a modicum of shared social responsibility—then it can vote to levy taxes to finance that effort.
Clearly the Romney campaign staff was not prepared for what it must now view as Justice Roberts’ betrayal. Based on the oral proceedings of the court, Romney’s aides felt assured that Justice Anthony Kennedy would join his four conservative colleagues in voting to reverse the law.
“My guess is that they’re not sleeping real well at the White House tonight,” Romney chortled the day before the ruling. With egg on his face the morning after, a subdued Romney, standing behind a podium sign promising to “Repeal and Replace Obamacare,” committed to sinking into a political swamp of winless contradictions.
The danger for Romney is in the word “replace,” for there is no way he will persuade even a Republican-dominated Congress to get rid of the obviously popular requirements of the new law, now declared constitutional. While the mandatory aspect—pay for insurance or pay a fine—remains unpopular, not so the programs that expand medical coverage to the uninsured. Three-quarters of those polled by The Associated Press said they wanted Congress, instead of sticking with the status quo, to come up with a new plan if the court threw this one out.
Romney’s devil is now in the details. What exactly in this massive overhaul, much of it widely popular although costly, would he shed? The court already has limited federal pressure on the states to increase assistance to the poor. Bereft of that handy demagogues’ argument, Romney and his fellow critics are left with eviscerating programs that assist the struggling middle class through obviously fairer access to heath care than has been provided previously by the insurance industry.
If Romney now dares to oppose the popular items in the bill, such as requirements for the insurance companies to cover young adult children or people with pre-existing medical conditions, he is finished as a candidate before he begins. And if it is the universal coverage mandate that he would eliminate, he is left with the government stepping in to fund the good stuff, and that is what the Republican right derides as socialized medicine.
This is the petard that now hoists Romney.
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This, in turn, means that however much the Romney campaign may wish otherwise, the nature of that business career is fair game. How did Mr. Romney make all that money? Was it in ways suggesting that what was good for Bain Capital, the private equity firm that made him rich, would also be good for America?
And the answer is no.
The truth is that even if Mr. Romney had been a classic captain of industry, a present-day Andrew Carnegie, his career wouldn’t have prepared him to manage the economy. A country is not a company (despite globalization, America still sells 86 percent of what it makes to itself), and the tools of macroeconomic policy — interest rates, tax rates, spending programs — have no counterparts on a corporate organization chart. Did I mention that Herbert Hoover actually was a great businessman in the classic mold?
In any case, however, Mr. Romney wasn’t that kind of businessman. Bain didn’t build businesses; it bought and sold them. Sometimes its takeovers led to new hiring; often they led to layoffs, wage cuts and lost benefits. On some occasions, Bain made a profit even as its takeover target was driven out of business. None of this sounds like the kind of record that should reassure American workers looking for an economic savior.
And then there’s the business about outsourcing.
Two weeks ago, The Washington Post reported that Bain had invested in companies whose specialty was helping other companies move jobs overseas. The Romney campaign went ballistic, demanding — unsuccessfully — that The Post retract the report on the basis of an unconvincing “fact sheet” consisting largely of executive testimonials.
What was more interesting was the campaign’s insistence that The Post had misled readers by failing to distinguish between “offshoring” — moving jobs abroad — and “outsourcing,” which simply means having an external contractor perform services that could have been performed in-house.
Now, if the Romney campaign really believed in its own alleged free-market principles, it would have defended the right of corporations to do whatever maximizes their profits, even if that means shipping jobs overseas. Instead, however, the campaign effectively conceded that offshoring is bad but insisted that outsourcing is O.K. as long as the contractor is another American firm.
That is, however, a very dubious assertion.
Consider one of Mr. Romney’s most famous remarks: “Corporations are people, my friend.” When the audience jeered, he elaborated: “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets.” This is undoubtedly true, once you take into account the pockets of, say, partners at Bain Capital (who, I hasten to add, are, indeed, people). But one of the main points of outsourcing is to ensure that as little as possible of what corporations earn goes into the pockets of the people who actually work for those corporations.
Why, for example, do many large companies now outsource cleaning and security to outside contractors? Surely the answer is, in large part, that outside contractors can hire cheap labor that isn’t represented by the union and can’t participate in the company health and retirement plans. And, sure enough, recent academic research finds that outsourced janitors and guards receive substantially lower wages and worse benefits than their in-house counterparts.
Just to be clear, outsourcing is only one source of the huge disconnect between a tiny elite and ordinary American workers, a disconnect that has been growing for more than 30 years. And Bain, in turn, was only one player in the growth of outsourcing. So Mitt Romney didn’t personally, single-handedly, destroy the middle-class society we used to have. He was, however, an enthusiastic and very well remunerated participant in the process of destruction; if Bain got involved with your company, one way or another, the odds were pretty good that even if your job survived you ended up with lower pay and diminished benefits.
In short, what was good for Bain Capital definitely wasn’t good for America. And, as I said at the beginning, the Obama campaign has every right to point that out.
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