Dear Tea Party Movement,
For the last few months, the world has been fascinated by your frenzied search for a presidential candidate who is not Mitt Romney. We know that you find the man inauthentic and that you have buoyed up a string of anti-Mitts in the Iowa polling—Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich—buffoons all, preposterous figures whom you have rightfully changed your minds about as soon as you got to know them.
It was quite a spectacle, your quest for the non-Romney—and I think we all know why you undertook it. In ways that matter, Romney is clearly a problem for you. His views on abortion, for example, change with the winds. Ditto, gay rights. He designed the Massachusetts health insurance system that was the model for Obamacare. And he’s even said that he approved of the TARP bank bailout, the abomination that ignited the Tea Party uprising in the first place.
Grievous offenses all, I have no doubt. Still, my advice to you idealists of the right is this: get over it. Not for sell-out reasons like: Romney has the best chance of beating Obama. No. You should get behind the charging Massachusetts RINO (your favorite term for a Republican-In-Name-Only sellout type) because, in a certain paradoxical way, he may turn out to be the truest of all the candidates to the spirit of your movement.
After all, given everything you represent, why wouldn’t you line up behind this quarter-billionaire who’s calling for just a little human love and sympathy for billionaires? I’m sure you already understand me perfectly well, but just to be certain, let me make the case.
The Gimme Candidate of 2012
Start with those issues where Romney’s positions so offend the sensibilities of you Robespierre Republicans. First, of course, the social issues. If nothing else, you in the Tea Party movement have spent the last three years teaching Americans that they no longer matter—not when we’re supposedly in a battle for the very soul of capitalism.
And here comes Mitt Romney, the soul of American capitalism in the flesh. Look back over his career as a predator drone at Bain Capital: Isn’t it the exact sort of background you always insist politicians ought to have? Isn’t it the sort of titanic enterprise for which you lust, as you wave your copy of Atlas Shrugged in the air?
You accuse the former Massachusetts governor of opportunism, but from where I stand, the bad faith is all on your side. What offends you about Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare plan, for example, isn’t that it crushes human liberty, but that it provided the model for President Obama’s own healthcare overhaul, which you spent the last two years decrying as the deed of a power-grabbing socialist.
If the public ever learns about the Republican provenance of Obamacare—and if Romney is the candidate, they most certainly will—it will become obvious that your movement was not telling the truth about all that Kenyan Stalinist death-panel stuff. It is indeed a moment to fear, that day when the nation finds out that you were, ahem, exaggerating in your bullhorn pronouncements about the communist in the White House. Still, if the Tea Party movement is all about truth-telling and straight shooting, then you need to face it like a patriot.
And yes, Mitt Romney has also said that the bank bailouts of 2008-2009 were necessary, while you regard them as a mortal sin against free-market principles. (To his credit though, at least in your eyes, he was also a total hardliner about the auto industry bailouts, displaying the pointless meanness you seem to admire in nearly any other politician.) In truth, though, the candidate’s only offense on the bailout question was his candor. He merely admitted what should be obvious to any billionaire from a study of bank history: that conservatives have no problem doling out, or grabbing for, government money when the chips are down.
After all, President Herbert Hoover himself distributed bank bailouts in the early years of the Great Depression. Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, Charles Dawes, helped out in Hoover’s bailout operation, later changing hats and grabbing a big slice of the bailout pie for his own bank. Ronald Reagan’s administration rescued Continental Illinois from what was then the largest bank failure in our history.
Citibank’s market-worshiping CEO Walter Wriston begged for (and of course received) the assistance of big government when Citi needed it—after making loans to the troubled Penn Central Railroad. And don’t forget, every single one of you is guilty of taking a government bailout any time you make a withdrawal from a bank that’s been rescued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The reason they—I mean, you—do these things should be as obvious as it is simple: “free market” has always been a high-minded way of saying “gimme,” and when the heat rises, the “market” is invariably replaced by more direct methods, like demanding bailouts from the government you hate. Banks get bailouts for the simple reason that they want bailouts and have the power to insist on them—the same circumstances that got them deregulated in wave after wave in the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts.
In this sense, Romney, who is loud and proud when it comes to the need for further deregulation, has actually been more consistent than you. He’s the gimme candidate of 2012 and so he should really be your guy.
Promethean Job Creators and Heroes of Venture Capital
You say Romney is an unprincipled faker. Fair enough—he is. He’s so plastic he’s almost animatronic. But have you looked in the mirror recently? Aren’t you the ones who fall for it every time Fox News wheels out some Washington hack to confuse this or that corporate issue with the sacred cause of freedom or states rights or man’s inalienable right to mine uranium in his backyard? Aren’t you the ones who thought that Glenn Beck’s tears were markers of emotional sincerity? And for Pete’s sake, your populist Tea Party movement was actually launched from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade!
I know, I know: for almost three years now you’ve dazzled the world with your proclamations that we’re being dragged into “tyranny,” that the country is being “destroyed,” that America needs to be “saved”—and now here comes Mitt, with his fondness for workaday compromise, ruining your carefully contrived atmosphere of panic.
That must be disappointing, but don’t lose the faith! Give the man credit: he has tried. He’s no stranger to the core Tea Party myth of the noble businessman persecuted by big government. Indeed, at the Conservative Political Action Congress in 2009, he opened his talk as a stand-up comic this way: “I gotta get through this speech before federal officials come here and arrest me for practicing capitalism.”
Meanwhile, he has the perfect Tea Party sense of social class. A centimillionaire who made his pile as a venture capitalist, Romney has both deplored class warfare—meaning, certain criticisms of Wall Street—and practiced it, taunting President Obama as a modern version of Marie (“let them eat cake”) Antoinette.
There’s no contradiction in any of this, either for him or you. When someone has made his way in life via academia, like the president, he is, of course, a snob, and part of the ruling elite. When, on the other hand, a person’s multi-millions were visited upon him by open-market actions directed from the C-suite, he is automatically a man of the people, a horny-handed son of toil. In fact, Romney takes this kind of market populism a step farther than you ordinarily dare: corporations, he has famously announced, are themselves people.
And keep in mind that, with Mitt Romney, venture capitalist, carrying your banner in 2012, you will finally get to submit your capsized vision of social class to the verdict of the people—the actual flesh-and-blood people, that is, not the corporate “people” who make up the S&P 500. You will get to defend exactly the sort of “person” your movement has longed to defend since it was birthed by a CNBC reporter almost three years ago to the cheers of a bunch of derivatives traders in Chicago.
You will get to explain your peculiar conviction that the way to react to a gigantic slump brought on by frenzied finance is to unshackle Wall Street. You will get to line up behind a heroic businessman, like those rugged, resourceful fellows in the Ayn Rand novels you love. You will get to go into battle for the job creators, which is what all capitalists are, right? (Well, okay, maybe not the guys at Bain Capital, the particular outfit where Romney made his pile, but the theory is all that really matters, isn’t it?)
Indeed, your leadership cadre is already playing up the inevitable criticisms of Romney as a job decimator as a way of launching a grand debate about capitalism—by which they mean, of course, freedom itself. When Newt Gingrich criticized Romney a few weeks ago for his career in private equity, the airwaves of your winger-tainment world exploded with outrage. “This is the kind of risk-taking, free-market capitalism that most people who call themselves conservatives applaud,” intoned Brit Hume on Fox News. If Newt had a problem with Bain’s operations, announced syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, “then Gingrich really doesn’t believe in capitalism at all.”
Washington Post columnist George Will declared that what Romney did in his venture capitalist days was an “essential social function,” that his company was “indispensable for wealth creation.” (Just whose wealth was being created he left discreetly undefined.) Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Center and a familiar figure at Tea Party events, is no fan of Romney’s, but he had this to say about Romney’s career: “private equity serves an incredibly important productive function in our economy… Private equity is in my view a heroic activity.”
“Heroic”: that’s exactly the word! In Romney we have finally found a quarter-billionaire to cry for. And so Suzy Welch, author and wife of Jack, appeared on Fox Business to wonder why Romney wasn’t defending himself aggressively against criticism of his business career. Romney, she announced, is “an American hero to people who believe in free enterprise, or he should be.”
And that combination of tragedy and heroism, my friends, is why you will soon be signing up for the Romney juggernaut. In him you will see the saintly victimhood of Sarah Palin melded with the Promethean job-creator who was the cult object of your 2010 efforts. Social issues be damned! Romney will ensure that we get the one thing that this country can’t do without on its path to hell: further deregulation of Wall Street.
The nation’s all-powerful elitist socialists will, of course, disagree, and you’ll have a field day, raging and weeping at the way they are going to set out to persecute this noble, wealth-creating soul.
Pity the billionaire: it will be a powerful rallying cry for 2012.
Yours in petulant individualism,
Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). He has also written The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter With Kansas? and several other abrasive volumes. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.