Democracies, flawed ones included, get the leaders they deserve, and we may well “deserve” Mitt Romney. A human weathervane whose political views orient at any given moment in the direction required for his next career conquest, the opportunistic former Massachusetts governor is perfectly suited to the cynical times when what might be called with a wink and nudge “pragmatism” trumps principles.
Romney’s the “Zelig” of American politics. Like Woody Allen’s famous “human chameleon” in the eponymously-named movie, the former Massachusetts governor transforms himself to suit his audience: yesterday, tarted up for his party’s feral base, he was a “severe” conservative; today, he’s retooled for independent voters as a moderate. On nearly every big issue—abortion, the Bush tax cuts, invading Iraq, immigration, gun control, climate change, the individual healthcare mandate, etc.,—he’s held nearly every side.
Of course, all politicians are a slippery lot. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich famously said that to run for president one has to be almost “pathologically narcissistic” and shamelessly self-promoting. The Founding Fathers understood this and designed a government with checks and balances accordingly. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” observed James Madison. Yet Romney’s a cut above the rest. The right-leaning Chicago Tribune, which endorsed Obama’s reelection, only the second time in its 165-year history it has supported a Democrat for president, called out Romney for being "astonishingly willing to bend his views to the politics of the moment.”
That Romney’s equivocations haven’t doomed his political career says a lot about his GOP competition, including Rick Santorum, a former Senator so unpopular with his own state’s electorate that he lost his seat by 17 percentage points, and Newt Gingrich, doubtlessly the only other politician in America on more sides of more issues than the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney’s durability is also symptomatic of the Republican Party’s rightward lurch over the past few decades, which requires GOP presidential aspirants to run a gauntlet of party faithful with views unpalatable to most Americans. Brazen pandering, i.e., equivocating, is required. It’s a no-win situation whose outcome satisfies neither the conservative base, which eventually throws its support behind an “electable” candidate it otherwise loathes, nor independent voters wary of the inevitable moderate remarketing of the eventual Republican nominee in time for the general election.
Regardless, the former Massachusetts governor should be disqualified on his own merits, or lack thereof. Romney's long history of tortured equivocations notwithstanding, his tax avoidance should render him unelectable. But it hasn’t. The elder Romney was also a wealthy tycoon, yet the Michigan governor refused as a matter of principle to take advantage of all legal loopholes to lower his tax liability. A true patriot wouldn’t nickel-and-dime his country. He also released 12 years of tax returns when running for president in 1967. Junior, by contrast, parks money in offshore tax avoidance havens, and only parsimoniously releases information about his finances.
Romney’s characterization of the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes as “victims” also should have sunk his candidacy. Never mind that his disdain for the unwashed masses—many of whom actually pay state, sales, and other taxes that together exceed the paltry 14 percent he coughs up to the IRS—might’ve been for show given his propensity to assume the identity of the person he believes his audience wants him to be, or in this case an upper-class twit amongst other upper-class twits at a private fundraiser. It was offensive regardless. Yet Romney may well win on Tuesday.
How can this be?
The answer has a lot to do with our misguided tendency to prize private gain even if it comes at the public’s loss. In such an environment, candidates who exemplify the seflish zeitgeist can go very far.
Hostility towards taxes and its corollary that government is always rotten are key signposts that our values are skewed. Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that taxes are the “price we pay for civilization,” financing government-furnished public goods like interstate highways and public schools. That’s forgotten. Taxes and government are now regularly disparaged. Politicians of all stripes promise to reduce taxation and get Washington off our backs, even though as a share of national income taxes are at a sixty-year low and the lack of federal regulations, not their over-abundance, caused the worst financial crisis in eighty years.
Obama had an opportunity to end the decades-long reign of unfettered greed when he came into office but failed miserably. Wall Street was promptly recapitalized. Too big to fail banks weren’t broken up and their incompetent CEOs kept their jobs. No crooked titan of finance went to jail. Government wasn’t given sweeping regulatory powers. Unlike past periods of excess, such as the Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties, which gave rise to the Progressive Era and New Deal, respectively, ours has birthed no lasting reform movement. We are who we’ve been.
Enter the “right” man for our wrong times; a man whose personal fortune built at Bain Capital “came by following the mantra of increasing cash flow, cutting jobs and minimizing taxable income,” writes Peter Joseph, a private investor, with some admiration in the New York Times; a man whose own pragmatism, i.e., lack of principles beyond his own self-aggrandizement, bespeaks the very opportunistic essence of our egocentric age. Romney promises more personal responsibility from the least fortunate and less public accountability by the most fortunate. He promises blood, toil, tears and sweat for the meek and poor, but a chicken in every corporate pot. He promises—surprise!—tax cuts for those who don’t need them. He promises more of what has made us less.
Such fiscal fuckery is colossally ill suited for a country beset by massive inequalities of wealth, massive budget deficits, and massive investment needs. But these aren’t the days of miracle and wonder. It’s country-fleecing time in the land of pirates. That’s where we are as a country. Romney may deserve us and we him. It’s election time. Ahoy Maties!