Wayne O'Leary

Corporate Man

"Where your nightmares end, ‘Willard’ begins,” cautioned an edgy promotional poster for the 1971 horror film of that name. The cult classic, a tale about one Willard Stiles, a social misfit who befriended rats and trained them to exact revenge upon his enemies, has more to say about the nightmarish 2012 Republican presidential nomination than you might expect.

As political observers are aware, the leading GOP contender and presumptive nominee is also named Willard, and he’s likewise something of a social misfit — or, at least, the possessor of a strange and awkward political persona. Willard Mitt Romney is, in truth, the oddest mainstream candidate to pursue the White House since the halcyon days of Richard Milhous Nixon. Stiff to the point of being an automaton, a perfectly appointed Ken doll come to life, Mitt makes the Al Gore of 2000 appear positively loosey-goosey by comparison.

The Republican Willard also befriends rats, although in his case, the rats are of the two-legged variety, and they reside not in a decrepit mansion but rather in fashionable offices on Wall Street. Willard Stiles was put upon by bankers desirous of acquiring his property; Willard Romney knows and admires bankers, and would allow them to foreclose on his namesake in a New York minute.

Romney occupies a singular place in 2012 politics; he’s the corporate sector’s candidate, and he comes by it honestly. His father, George W. Romney, was chairman and CEO of American Motors Corporation in the 1950s, before embarking on his own electoral career, which ended badly in a disastrous run for president in 1968. Willard himself was named after his father’s best friend, hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott.

The elder Romney was a genuine Republican moderate who, as governor of Michigan, supported civil rights, opposed the Vietnam war, signed a state income-tax law, and resisted his party’s Goldwater wave in 1964. But Willard, like other contemporary sons of famous political fathers (Evan Bayh and Andrew Cuomo come to mind) has adapted nicely to the post-Reagan ideological environment, acquiring a convenient conservative sensibility. Within Republican circles, this means kowtowing to the Christian Right and imbibing at the Tea Party’s libertarian trough.

Willard (who chose as a youngster to go by his more folksy and diminutive middle name — small wonder) has had no problem making the transition. The erstwhile “moderate” governor of Massachusetts presently opposes abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, immigration reform, gun control, and separation of church and state. Concurrently, he favors the death penalty, Ryan-style Medicare privatization, a balanced-budget amendment, and cutbacks to Social Security. Most of these are shameless, 180-degree reversals of prior positions.

More striking perhaps, Romney 2012 opposes the healthcare plan of Romney 2006, the Massachusetts precedent upon which Obamacare is based. The Bay State’s universal-coverage scheme with its individual mandate was hailed by His Mittness as an innovative “market-based reform” when he signed it into law six years ago; the federal government’s virtually identical 2010 version has been demonized by the ex-governor as a “government takeover” and “an unconscionable abuse of power.”

This is Willard at his flip-flopping best, doing his utmost to ostentatiously appease his party’s far right, its nominating majority. But here’s where it gets interesting. Those who look closely will note that Romney’s blatant reversals are almost always on noneconomic issues — mostly on the social-cultural canon of primary concern to the GOP’s theocratic fringe. In this area, Willard will flip and flop, and then flip again, depending on the exigencies of the moment; flexibility is his strategic response to purist tea-party Republicanism.

But on issues near and dear to his heart — on those things of importance to corporate America — Willard is constancy itself. It is Romney, remember, who argues that corporations are people, entitled to all the prerogatives conferred by Citizens United. It is Romney who proclaims the benefits of home foreclosure, welcoming the ultimate destruction of underwater mortgage holders in the name of creating investment opportunities in housing. It is Romney who condemns “Big Labor” and any manifestation of union organizing as impediments to business. And it is Romney who has long endorsed the repeal of estate, capital-gains, and dividend taxes, a reduction in the corporate income-tax rate, tax-free repatriation of corporate foreign profits, and a weakening of SEC regulations, specifically Sarbanes-Oxley.

For Romney, favors and subsidies for corporations and the people who run them is where the rubber meets the road, politically speaking. It’s part of his pedigree, an almost instinctive, knee-jerk response to economic-policy questions. Not long ago, Barack Obama seemed to be evolving into corporate America’s man, but the president was clearly being influenced by his Wall Street-connected advisors from the old Clinton team; the role was not a natural fit for him, and he’s been forging an independent and contrary identity of late — to the immense relief of most Democrats.

Willard Romney is a different case. His infatuation with money and enterprise is both part of his religious inheritance as a Mormon and part of his career experience as a profit-oriented millionaire businessman. Writing in the October 2011 issue of Harpers, author Chris Lehmann perceptively analyzes Mormonism’s “ethos of accumulation,” which stresses a close alliance between wealth and virtue, wherein Paradise is primarily reserved for the enterprising rich. Romney was formed by this Calvinistic “Mormon-style gospel of wealth;” he grew up in a church that resembles a corporation, complete with wide-ranging investment holdings totaling $25-$30 billion.

Nor did our Willard fall far from the tree. His career prior to politics was consumed by his infamous, 14-year association with Bain Capital, the private-equity investment firm he co-founded in 1984. Bain’s approach in the so-called leveraged-buyout business was to purchase struggling companies cheaply with money borrowed against their assets, strip them of “excess” workers and unpromising projects, and milk them of whatever remaining profits were to be had, often driving them into bankruptcy in the process.

This expression of capitalism at its rawest made millions for Romney and his associates, who subsequently paid only a nominal 15% in capital-gains taxes on their winnings. Meanwhile, America’s economic landscape was littered with thousands of unemployed workers, the refuse of Bain acquisitions that didn’t quite pan out.

However, that’s a small price to pay for laying the groundwork, financial and otherwise, for a national political career. A $250 million personal kitty plus a corporate world view can take you far, even if your name is Willard.

Wayne O’Leary lives in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2012


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