. . . Republicans this year will have to show that they are not similarly disconnected from what worries Americans. Rather than beginning from Obama’s failures, or from vague if well-meaning allusions to the importance of liberty, Mitt Romney should begin his appeal by explaining the sources of public concern. He should be frank about the danger of stagnation, clear about identifying President Obama with precisely the difficulty we face, and then explicit in offering his own alternative and his own qualifications.
That alternative should aim not simply to remove obstacles to prosperity, but to cultivate the sources of strength and growth in the American economy—to help enable the kind of productivity boom necessary to get us back on a trajectory of growth.
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It is hard to imagine a figure more poorly suited to this essential task than Barack Obama—so committed is he to the dying order, and so sternly opposed to nearly every reform this moment requires. And it is also hard to think of a figure better suited to this particular way of approaching our economic challenge than Mitt Romney. This is not only because his more market-oriented views are closer to the attitude we need, but also because Romney in particular has spent much of his career helping various enterprises discover their hidden strengths and modernize to compete.
The conventional wisdom of this campaign has been that Romney’s background in private equity would be a liability for him—exposing him as a wealthy bloodsucker and professional firer of blue-collar workers. But this assumes that Americans accept Obama’s version of the problem we confront: that all is well with our welfare state and the only thing standing in the way of America’s success is the greed of the wealthy. This has never been a common view in America, and there is no reason to think it is now.
If, however, American voters can come to see that our economic challenges—and their own anxieties about the future—are grounded in our being genuinely unprepared for the 21st century, then Romney’s biography might offer some powerful reasons to elect him this fall. The fact is that private equity is a productivity engine. Firms like the one Romney started, Bain Capital, invest in companies that have potential but are underperforming and—using market incentives and an intense focus on efficiency—seek to dramatically improve their productivity and help them grow and prosper.
They do not always succeed, of course, and the productivity improvements they impose do sometimes involve job losses as well as job gains. But their goal is growth, and their effect has been to create more jobs and to create more wealth. Romney’s background does not mean he would govern as a private equity manager but rather that he understands what it takes to be effective and productive in the private sector and to create jobs and wealth—that he has seen what the modern economy requires, and what the American economy lacks. His experience can allow him to speak to the nation’s concerns in practical rather than strictly ideological terms, and to make the case that, while our problems are real, our great strengths are too, and the era of American growth and opportunity is by no means behind us.