16 January 2012

How not to exploit the GOP debate on capitalism

E. J. Dionne has some fun in a recent column describing Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich as "well-known socialist intellectuals" for their comments on Bain Capital and Mitt Romney. In all seriousness, he welcomes their criticisms, and the criticism of their criticisms, for opening "the debate on the nature of modern capitalism that should have started in 2008....[focusing on] whether some kinds of capitalism are bad for the system as a whole." For Dionne, the debate is a little one-sided. He quotes Gingrich and Perry favorably at their most scathing, without presenting the Romney side of the debate, which would presumably explain the necessity or ultimate benefit of Bain's more controversial practices. To be fair, Romney's supporters have done little such explaining, preferring to condemn his rivals for heresies against the capitalist faith.  Speaking for himself, Dionne intervenes on another front, attacking Romney on ground different from that taken by the other Republicans. While Perry and Gingrich have spoken, probably with more accuracy than sincerity, about the suffering inflicted by Bain on working-class Americans, Dionne wants to engage the front-runner on the subject of free enterprise, not from the workers' perspective, but from the perspective of the state.

Romney’s defense of his work as a venture capitalist is one of the truly authentic parts of an otherwise heavily scripted campaign. He speaks with genuine passion when he accuses his conservative opponents of putting “free enterprise on trial.” But that goes to the heart of the matter: “Free” for whom and under what circumstances? Capitalists of Romney’s sort never want to acknowledge how much their ability to make money depends on what government does. How does it structure the laws related to property, taxation and debt? What rules does it write on how companies can be acquired and how power within firms is apportioned among shareholders, employees, managers and other stakeholders? These are not natural laws. They are the work of politicians and the lobbyists who influence them.

Dionne's position is intellectually sound yet tone deaf in the typical liberal Democrat manner. If GOP leaders fear that this issue will hurt them in the general election, it's not because they think Gingrich or Perry exposed any vulnerability of Romney's on the subject of capital's dependence on the state. If the two bomb-throwers have gained any traction at all, it is because theirs has been an appeal to the working class. Perry and Gingrich obviously still believe in free enterprise, and they want working-class Republicans to believe that they'll benefit from it except when a "vulture capitalist" like Romney preys on businesses. What a Democrat or anyone to the left of the Republican party should add at this point requires a little tweaking of Dionne's paragraph, or cutting it down to one crucial sentence: "Capitalists of Romney's sort never want to acknowledge how much their ability to make money depends on the working class." That's the point Gingrich and Perry can't quite make, despite their rhetorical implication that companies like Bain are betraying American workers. Because of their own dogmatic commitment to free enterprise, the two Republicans will ultimately find themselves hard pressed in Republican company to explain why layoffs as perpetrated by Bain are wrong. That's when someone like Dionne should step in, instead of opining on the majesty of the state. It's not an irrelevant subject, but if he wants to bring it up, he should also open a debate on who gets to make those rules. His own complacent answer to the question isn't necessarily the right one. 

No comments: