I've been on a long crusade, which began before this campaign and will probably continue after it, to get everyone to think more clearly about what it means when a politician says "I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman." It's particularly important this year, of course, because one of the major party candidates is putting forward his business experience as the primary rationale for his candidacy. I don't know if that's ever happened before, and it certainly hasn't happened in the modern era. We're still waiting to hear what stunning business insights Mitt Romney will bring to the White House that no other person could possibly have. And yesterday, Time's Mark Halperin — himself the target of a lot of well-deserved derision over the years—made an admirable effort to try to pin Romney down on this question in an interview. Unsurprisingly, he failed. Let's read an excerpt:
Halperin: The President says that your experience at Bain Capital will be central in this election. He says it does not qualify you to be a job creator as President. I know you think that working in the private sector in and of itself gives you insight into how the economy works, but what specific skills or policies did you learn at Bain that would help you create an environment where jobs would be created?
Romney: Well that’s a bit of a question like saying, what have you learned in life that would help you lead? My whole life has been learning to lead, from my parents, to my education, to the experience I had in the private sector, to helping run the Olympics, and then of course helping guide a state. Those experiences in totality have given me an understanding of how America works and how the economy works. Twenty five years in business, including business with other nations, competing with companies across the world, has given me an understanding of what it is that makes America a good place to grow and add jobs, and why jobs leave America – why businesses decide to locate here, and why they decide to locate somewhere else. What outsourcing causes – what it’s caused by, rather. I understand, for instance, how to read a balance sheet. I happen to believe that having been in the private sector for twenty-five years gives me a perspective on how jobs are created – that someone who’s never spent a day in the private sector, like President Obama, simply doesn’t understand.
Romney starts off his answer almost befuddled that Halperin would ask a question that's so obvious and so broad, as though the idea that he would have to say what he learned in the private sector is kind of silly. Then he goes on to say, by my count, four separate times that he "understands" how the economy works, without saying what that understanding consists of, other than the fact that he knows "how to read a balance sheet." Which would be fine, if he were running for Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Then Halperin tries to press him for some more specifics:
Halperin: I want to ask you to be just a little bit more specific about that, because again, he said this is like the central way he’s going to run this campaign, to focus on your business career. You said you know how to read a balance sheet. There are a lot of people in America who know how to do that. What would make you qualify to be President – again, specific things you’ve learned, things you know, policies that grow out of your experience at Bain Capital that would lead toward job creation.
Romney: Well, Mark, let’s be a little more specific as to the area you’d like to suggest. Trade policies? Labor policies? Energy policies? Let’s take energy, for instance. I understand that in some industries, the input cost of energy is a major factor in whether an industry is going to locate in the United States or go elsewhere. So, when, at Bain Capital, we started a new steel company called Steel Dynamics in Indiana, the cost of energy was a very important factor to the success of that enterprise. When the President is making it harder to mine coal, to use coal, to take advantage of our gas resources, to make it harder to get our oil resources – all those things combine to make our cost of energy higher than it needs to be, and it drives away enterprises from this country. It sends it to places that have lower-cost energy. I understand the impact of those kinds of factors on job creation. I will have a very different policy. My policy on energy is to take advantage of coal, oil, natural gas, as well as our renewables, and nuclear – make America the largest energy producer in the world. I think we can get there, in 10 or 15 years. That will bring back manufacturing of certain high-energy intensive industries. It’ll bring back jobs. It’ll create a surprising economic revitalization of this country.
Well, there you have it. In his 25 years in the private sector, Mitt Romney learned that energy is a cost that businesses incur, and if energy were cheaper, businesses would have more money. You may need to sit down to fully assimilate the profundity of that insight, the extraordinary brilliance it takes to make an unexpected connection like that and dramatically change the way all of us look at the world. If only earlier generations of political leaders had known!
Halperin keeps trying to get something specific out of Romney, and Romney keeps evading. At one point he protests that he can't give Halperin a specific innovative idea to create jobs, because "It is a whole passel of elements that come together to create a strong economy, and for someone who spent thei life in the economy, they understand how that works." So, to sum up: Mitt Romney understands how the economy works. And what ideas does that understanding produce? He understands how the economy works. What's he going to actually do once in office? He understands how the economy works.