Mitt Romney: The Huckster

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A Harvard-educated prodigy executive, Romney at a very young age was put in charge of a venture-capital outfit called Bain Capital. Reports suggest that many of the traits that mark Romney's campaign style — his meticulously prepared presentation, his apparent tirelessness, his iron discipline in not straying into controversial or unpredictable policy positions — were also in evidence in his managerial style at Bain, where he is said to have pored over each and every expenditure and bloodlessly weeded out risky investment schemes in an age (the early Eighties) when many investment companies were spending money like drunken sailors. At Bain, each partner had veto power over every deal, and as a result, investing any money at all was an enormously time- consuming process. One former partner, Bob White, says he got so tired of Romney shooting down deals in strategy meetings that he wanted to "punch him in the nose." But the devil's-advocate approach paid off — most notably when Bain's $650,000 investment in a single Staples store turned into an $18 billion chain.

Despite this success, however, Romney moved Bain away from boom-bust venture-capital investments and into the darker world of leveraged buyouts, where the firm borrowed money to make deals. A typical example of Bain's approach was its experience with another office-supply company called Ampad, which it acquired in 1992. In 1993, the company had $11 million in debt; by 1999, that number had grown to nearly $400 million, and the firm eventually defailure, Bain made a fortune, raking in more than $100 million while driving the company into the ground and destroying hundreds of jobs in places like New York (where 185 people were thrown out of work in a plant closing near Buffalo) and Indiana (where the firm fired 200 workers from a paper factory).

Even more telling was Romney's interest in a medical-testing firm called Damon Corp., which Bain bought in 1989. The company was eventually fined a record $119 million for defrauding the federal government out of $25 million, but Bain still tripled its investment on the Damon deal. And Romney, who was sitting on the Damon board at the time of the fraud (his claim that he was the one who called for an internal investigation has never been substantiated), made a personal profit of $473,000 on the deal. In a delicious detail that says a lot about the nature of Romney's morality, the investor had no problem making piles of cash off companies that executed mass layoffs or defrauded the government, but he balked when asked to invest in a Bain deal to acquire a video distribution company called Artisan Entertainment. "I didn't want to profit from a studio that made R-rated movies," he huffed.

All of which makes it very dicey when Romney talks about how he wants to help U the Voter save money by instituting a "new tax rate" on your savings — "zero." At stop after stop, I hear crowds cheer at that line; few, apparently, catch Romney mentioning that this new low, low tax rate would also apply to capital gains, which would make quite a killing for the Bain Capitals of the world. The crowds also respond when Romney promises to run the government like a business — although there is some creeping doubt on the issue, even among the hardest of hardcore Republican crowds. "I don't know," says an elderly man in Merrimack, reflecting the legacy of the Bush years. "These rich guys always promise not to spend. I don't trust 'em anymore."

That nagging credibility problem might explain why Romney, despite massively outspending his Republican rivals — $53 million so far, including more than $17 million of his own money — is currently slipping in the polls. In New Hampshire, where for months he has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on localtelevision advertising, Romney has dropped into a virtual tie with fangbaring rival Giuliani (who has lately been assailing him with wild charges about his "Taxachusetts hypocrisy"). And in Iowa, where Romney leads the GOP field, he has dropped four points in the polls in recent months. Worse still, his fund-raising numbers have steadily dropped from quarter to quarter; his haul went from $21 million in the first quarter of this year to $14 million in the second, less than half the amount raised by Barack Obama.

The real question is this: If you're gunning for the GOP nomination, where do you run these days? Do you strap on your medals, limp into VFW halls and do a Band of Brothers act, a la John Mc- Cain? Do you stand up before suburban crowds, tell horror tales of hairy Muslims lurking near reservoirs and promise to bomb them all back to the Stone Age, like Rudy Giuliani? Do you wear your WWJD cap and quote the Bible, like Mike Huckabee, or freak out about rapehungry Mexicans, like Tom Tancredo? Or do you do what Romney does: Look smooth, keep your nose clean and tour the country talking about business being the answer to all the world's ills?

It's a conundrum, and the problem isn't just that the current batch of ruling Republicans have horrified the whole world through their insane invasion of Iraq, run up record deficits despite campaigning on a platform of fiscal restraint, punted the ethics issue deep into Democrat territory with a parade of staggering corruption indictments and turned their pompous emphasis on personal morality into a late-night punch line through their hilarious high-profile pursuits of littleboy pages and anonymous bathroom sex. It's also that America is getting older, and yesterday's liberalism is slowly but surely turning into a new generation's conservatism. So when some starchedup, smooth-talking, TV-ready creature like Mitt Romney, who made his fortune laying off factory workers, walks onto college campuses and starts bashing cohabitation and having children out of wedlock, he loses young people who are tired of watching our leaders fuck things up on a grand scale and then turn around and blame our problems on stoned teenagers. Back when the Gingrich revolution was hot, even college kids bought into the reactionary rhetoric. But now that Bush and Cheney have blown that revolution to itty-bitty pieces, the Republican morality line sells like warmedover horseshit; on college campuses, Romney comes off like a parent trying to maintain his moral authority after a messy divorce in which the kids got to watch Daddy shacking up with his secretary and Mommy hauling out the lawyers to repossess Dad's fridge.

"Like, a friend of mine is pregnant right now, and I completely support her even though she may or may not be married," says Caitlyn Keating, a student who isn't impressed with Romney's moralizing at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.

For a Republican, Mitt Romney did everything right. He pinched his pennies, fired everyone in sight, worshipped God loudly and often, and kept his cock in his pants for the whole of his enormously profitable adult life, before finally jumping into politics in late middle age with a giant war chest in tow. But by the time he made it to the campaign trail, a succession of Republicans before him had already spent an entire generation crying wolf to increasingly skeptical audiences. Romney may be a great salesman, but he's running for the nomination of a party that has nothing left to sell.

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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.