Mitt Romney: The Huckster

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Once you've heard this kind of drivel enough times, it's not hard to see how this flag-waving conservative actually won the governorship in Ted Kennedy's home state, or propelled his Mormon magic-underwear-wearing self to nearfront- runner status in a party that is overwhelmingly, intolerantly Christian. Mitt Romney is the A-Rod of campaigning; he makes it look easy. But like A-Rod, Romney has that nagging problem of how to finish. What he is finding is that after seven years of George Bush , there may not be any winning territory left to steal on the GOP side. In fact, the cupboard is so bare for Republicans these days that when Romney and Rudy Giuliani held a mudslinging contest at the October 9th debate, they picked a fight over the line-item veto — an issue about as relevant in the age of Iraq as women's suffrage, or free silver. In that sense, watching this campaign genius grope around in the wreckage of modern Republicanism for a viable electoral platform is not only highly entertaining — it says a lot about how completely the Karl Roves and the Dick Cheneys of the world have intellectually bankrupted a party that just ten years ago looked poised to become America's permanent majority.

Romney's shtick — and it's not an unobvious tactic, given what meager scraps of fertile political territory are left for Republicans to claim for themselves — is to pitch himself as the "private sector" candidate, the one guy on either side of the field who can sell himself as a captain- of-industry type, familiar with the ins and outs of the global economy.

You can learn a lot about a candidate by what his leadoff line is, and in Romney's case, when he's not in New Hampshire (where he unfailingly kicks off every event with a Red Sox reference; I actually clocked him at one stop mentioning the Sawx as early as three seconds after grabbing the microphone) he plunges right into his I-know-the-way-because- I've-made-shitloads-of-money act.

"The challenges we face are beyond the scope of just a politician," he says. "It's going to take somebody who's been able to live in the private sector, who learns how the economy actually works, who knows how to get the job done. It's going to take someone like that to get America on track again."

And from there he's off. If there's any theme to Romney's stump speech, it's his relentless emphasis on his private-sector background. He relies heavily on the compare 'n' contrast technique, fragging Democrats like Hillary Clinton for their supposed Trotskyite affection for big government ("I wonder why they always turn to government as the answer. I think it's because they spend their life in government. I've spent my life in the private sector"). He pimps his global-economy credentials ("I've done business in some twenty different countries"). And most hilariously, he name-drops like a Hollywood press agent, giving the impression that he spends all his spare time smoking cigars at the Yale Club with Fortune 500 CEOs. At a stop in Manchester, New Hampshire, Romney addresses a crowd of wide-eyed corporate lawyers at a special "Economic Ask Mitt Anything" event (as opposed to an ordinary "Ask Mitt Anything" event; the only difference between an "Economic Ask Mitt" and a regular "Ask Mitt," as far as I can tell, is that the audience at the former is richer). Romney explains how he settled upon his health-care strategy.

"What happened is pretty interesting," he says, laughing. "The founder of Staples came to my office after I was elected governor, and he said, 'Mitt, if you really want to help people, you'll find a way to get everybody health insurance.'"

Only in America do audiences not burst out laughing when a guy worth $250 million gets up onstage and says he and his CEO buddies spend their spare time racking their brains to find ways to help people. Indeed, when you talk to people at Romney's events, they love to parrot what he has just told them about his fabled business background. "He strongly supports the private sector to solve our problems," gushes Terry Dussault of Merrimack. "That's very important to me."

The perception of Romney as a successful businessman who has made a vast fortune is seductive enough that it works for most audiences on the Republican campaign trail, even if they don't really understand how exactly he made all that money. But if Romney makes it through the nomination process to face the Democrats, they will be sure to turn his career into a referendum on modern business practices. In many ways, Romney is a symbol of modern capitalism, a turbopowered Wall Street dice-roller who made his fortune by coldbloodedly gambling on the successes and failures of the companies he bought and sold from afar. Romney's "business" wasn't turning labor into product, it was turning money into money — and more than a few of his investments were of the scorchedearth variety, buying up companies and cashing out within three to five years, often after closing factories or laying off workers to beef up the bottom line.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.