The Pulse: Romney must face his work history head-on

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Greer, S.C. Rivals are doing him a favor in forcing the issue sooner rather than later.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Greer, S.C. Rivals are doing him a favor in forcing the issue sooner rather than later. (CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press)
Posted: January 13, 2012

It was as if Oliver Stone had written a Mitt Romney sound bite when this week the candidate was quoted as saying, "I like firing people." After all, Stone directed Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, saying similar things in the 1987 movie classic Wall Street.

Men in their 40s and 50s still quote Gekko: "Lunch is for wimps"; "I create nothing. I own"; "What's worth doing is worth doing for money"; "If you're not inside, you're outside"; and of course, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit."

Gekko would have liked firing people. But in Romney's case, there was more to the story, namely, that he was talking about firing people who offer bad service, in particular, insurance companies. Nevertheless, the "firing" quote helped foster a narrative of Romney as a predatory capitalist. The surprise, to some, is the direction from which this attack is coming: his own party. A Newt Gingrich super PAC has taken this tack in a blunt commercial, and Rick Perry called Romney a "vulture capitalist." To pundits on the right, these criticisms have crossed a line.

Rush Limbaugh said Gingrich was parroting the New York Times and the recent protest movement. "I don't know why the Occupy Wall Street people are protesting Newt," said Limbaugh. "They're singing from the same hymnal on this."

True, a Times editorial this week said, "The problem with Mr. Romney's pitch is the kind of businessman he was: specifically, a buyer of flailing companies who squeezed out the inefficiencies (often known as employees) and then sold or merged them for a hefty profit.. . . This kind of leveraged capitalism, which first caught fire in the 1980s, is one of the reasons for the growth in the income gap, tipping the wealth in the economy toward the people at the top."

Guess who agrees with that. Rick Perry, whose "vulture capitalism" comment drew a retort from Sean Hannity. "It almost sounds like Occupy Wall Street," Hannity complained. "It doesn't sound like someone who is governing Texas as a conservative." Perry didn't back down. "There is a real difference between venture capitalism and vulture capitalism," he told Hannity, adding, "The fact of the matter is he's going to have to face up to this at some time or another."

On that point, Perry is correct. Romney's business background is the elephant in the room, and he needs to address it. Unintentionally, Perry and Gingrich are doing Romney a favor in forcing him to do so sooner rather than later.

In today's "Occupy" climate, with the unemployment rate at 8.5 percent, and with discussions about income disparity part of the election dialogue, of course the brand of capitalism practiced by Romney is going to be a subplot to the election. Some, like Gingrich, Perry, and the Times' editorial board, will see Romney as a New Millennium Gekko, who lined his pockets at the expense of laid-off workers. Others, including Limbaugh, Hannity, and the editorial page of National Review, will applaud his business acumen. ("Wall Street has its share of miscreants, and they should be recognized as such when appropriate. But to abominate Mitt Romney for having been a success at the business of investing in struggling American companies, connecting entrepreneurs with capital and producers with markets, is foolish and destructive," the Review said this week.)

Perhaps that sigh you hear is coming from the White House. Surely, this was to have been the negative narrative the Obama campaign intended to drive in the fall, assuming Romney won the nomination, which grows more likely by the day. Better for Romney that he respond to this criticism now, in front of Republican audiences that will be far more sympathetic to his position than will the Democrats. And by the time the general election rolls around, the issue will still be alive, but now minus its sting.

Not unlike when Barack Obama confronted the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue with a speech March 18, 2008, at the National Constitution Center in the midst of a bruising primary against Hillary Clinton. Did Fox News show Wright's fiery footage in the fall? Yes, but to most other media outlets, and many voters, the issue was long over, and Obama had survived it.

Of course, the key to Obama's survival was that he addressed that distraction head-on. Romney can have a similar outcome, assuming he does likewise.


Contact columnist Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish. com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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