Friday, February 17, 2012
Romney, the CEO-candidate, talks business in Mayfield Heights
I went to see Mitt Romney’s speech at Landerhaven last night, and I think I saw why he’s having trouble connecting with voters.
We all know the story: Romney’s the Republican front-runner who can’t hold a lead. Conservative voters keep turning to other presidential candidates. Rick Santorum is now beating Romney in the polls in Ohio, in Michigan, and nationwide. The right says Romney isn’t really conservative; the left and right say he lacks core beliefs.
But last night, his problems seemed far away. Romney got an enthusiastic reception at the Cuyahoga County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day dinner. He laid out a fiscally conservative critique of President Obama and a conservative agenda that fits who he is and what he’s done.
“This president did not cause the recession, but he made it worse,” Romney argued. “This president is not the reason the economy is showing signs of getting better. He’s the reason it’s taken so long for the economy to show signs of getting better.”
Romney charged that several of Obama’s policies had hindered businesses from hiring people, from health care reform to deficit spending to regulations of the oil, coal and natural gas industries. He promised instead to repeal the health care law, approve the Keystone pipeline to Canada, and “cut spending, eliminate programs, shrink government as a share of the economy from 25 percent to 20 percent and finally balance our budget.”
It’s a classic conservative argument, and Romney is a classic type of Republican: a CEO candidate. A former corporate executive, he thinks government doesn’t understand business and ought to get out of its way.
Obama “never worked in the private sector,” complained Romney, who ran the private investment firm Bain Capital before he was governor of Massachusetts.
“A lot of people in government, they’re never had the great fortune of working in a regular job, in a regular enterprise, and seeing what it’s like to try to make a product or sell a service. They haven’t had the experiences that many of you -- most of you probably in this room -- have had.”
Romney’s argument that he understands the economy better than Obama because of his business experience may be a powerful weapon during an economic downturn.
But his business experience is also his weakness. I noticed something strange about Romney’s speech: He talked to the audience like they were all fellow businesspeople.
“If you’re in the private sector, as most of you are in this room, you don’t have a choice about being fiscally conservative,” he said. “If you’re not fiscally conservative, you’re broke, you’re gone. [Other] businesses [will] put you out of business! You know how to be conservative!”
The tickets to last night’s Republican Party dinner were $50 to $75 -- not cheap, but affordable for a wide range of people. “Parma Republican Club,” read the sign on the table closest to me. But even when Romney tried to aim his message at employees and employers alike, it sounded like a chamber of commerce address.
“What you do is harder than what government does,” Romney said to applause. “If you mess up big time, you lose your job, you lose your investment, lose the jobs of other people. The private sector is not forgiving.”
Romney's message connected at Landerhaven, where he was among conservatives who believe in pro-business, laissez-faire politics, whether they own a business or not. But I wonder how much this message will resonate with people who’ve already lost their jobs or are underemployed.
CEO candidates can’t count on as much support today as Romney’s father did in the 1960s. It’s not just that Tea Party voters are pushing the Republican Party to the right. It’s that the working class has become more Republican.
“Reagan Democrats” aren’t Democrats anymore. They’re conservatives. They don’t like government, taxes, or liberalism. But they’re populist conservatives. They’re not eager to vote for a guy who reminds them of their boss.
Romney needs to get better at talking to people who are suffering from the economic downturn. But part of his problem goes deeper than rhetoric or style. His defense of the “unforgiving” private sector may turn double-edged on him.
The president’s campaign has already filmed attack-ad footage of steel workers who lost their jobs after Bain Capital took over their mill. Obama’s stump-speech line about not going “back to the same policies that got us into this mess” aims the poor economy back at the Republicans and financial-firm executives. In a bad economy, a campaign between a liberal-activist president and a CEO-challenger will be a clear, clarifying fight and a close call.