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February 08, 2012

The Romney Brain

Writing in The New Yorker (1/23/12), Jeffrey Frank unearths this juicy quote on Romney: “He has been on so many sides of so many questions that one begins to wonder just where he does stand. He sounds like a man in panic. And a man who panics is not the best candidate for president.” By now, of course, observations of this sort have become the conventional wisdom on Mitt Romney; but what makes this iteration so intriguing (besides the “panic” analysis) is that it was not made in reference to Mitt, but, rather, his father and presidential aspirant of another time, George Romney. And, moreover, it was offered not by one of the senior Romney’s competitors, but by none other than President Eisenhower.

Ever since George Romney famously explained his most famous flip-flop—his position change on the war in Vietnam—as an instance of “brain washing” by the generals (Mort Sahl quipped that it need only have been a light rinse), the Romney brain (father and son, mind and heart) has been a matter of public curiosity and political derision. How smart are these guys, really? And, deep down, do they really believe anything?

My own suspicions are that both men are/were quite smart—and that both have/had deeply felt beliefs. The problem is that both have been very narrowly applied. George Romney cared a great deal about making money, and was very smart about doing it. A year after it was formed in 1954, Romney senior took over the American Motor Corporation and aggressively reorganized it—making it a reasonably strong competitor of Detroit’s Big Three until the 1980s. And Mitt’s talent for money making is already legend. Both men came equipped with a ruthless ability to focus on the bottom line—and a willingness to manipulate the product line in any way necessary to bolster it.
That sort of thinking, useful as it may me for business, puts a whole lot of issues on the “doesn’t really matter list.”

George Romney could easily trash the Hudson brand AMC inherited at its founding because whatever intrinsic cultural or historical value it might have laid claim to could not be monetized—fair enough. And when he moved the corporation in the direction of a small car product line, his vision was not grounded in sound public policy (a happy coincidence there), but in market analysis. Similarly, when Mitt takes over a company, his interest is in neither the welfare of the people he now controls or the visceral pleasure of firing them—but on the pressure they exert on the bottom line. The same is true for whatever they make—the social or moral value of a product is simply not part of the calculus. For some people, however, any or all of those things might matter quite a lot. And when talking to those people—people who care inordinately about insignificant things—why wouldn’t you just tell them whatever they want to hear? Why get people riled up about stuff that does not matter.

Nobody, as far as I know, has ever really accused Romney of flip-flopping on the issues that really count—like government debt or the taxes folks in his class must pay. But on issues such as abortion, social security, education, or adequate healthcare—things that are the mere “products” of government—why would anyone ever commit to a position on these? Much less stick to it.

Posted by stevemack at 10:51 AM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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