Mitt Romney has garnered a lot of credit for crafting a perfectly-targeted general election message focusing on the economy:
[H]is narrow, economy-focused message appears to be resonating amid growing alarm about the unemployment rate – which rose above 9 percent the day after Romney declared his campaign.
Romney can continue to gain traction by presenting himself as an accomplished businessman and the savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics – a turnaround artist who can heal the country’s economic wounds.
There's a lot of truth here. The GOP's best chance to win the presidency is to position itself as the beneficiary of poor economic conditions, and Romney's campaign message recognizes that reality. It's also true that Romney is a smart, capable man who's comfortable designing effective technocratic solutions such as his Massachusetts health care plan. But it does not follow from this that Romney could actually provide better macroeconomic management than the current administration.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the economy is not just a problem where we need a businessman to come in and look under the hood. It's a contested ideological and political debate replete with competing analyses. What's relevant is not Romney's experience but what Romney plans to do as president. Thus far he has no plan at all. He campaign message is entirely focused on blaming Obama for an economic crisis he inherited without offering any alternative solutions:
At some point, Romney will have to put out a plan. That, in turn, will undercut the political salience of his managerial reputation. Any plan Romney endorses will have to be acceptable to the conservative base, which almost by definition means that it will fail by the standards of competent technocracy. The dominant strands of economic thought in the conservative movement are supply-side economics, Hooverism, and goldbuggery. Romney's plan will have to reflect some combination of those, at which point he'll be running as the advocate of a specific program rather than the guy who will do for America what he did at Bain Capital.
Next, even to limited the extent that we can apply Romney's business experience to his governing style, it does not necessarily auger well for him. Romney was a turnaround artist, which meant that he liquidated huge numbers of jobs in order to make firms profitable. I don't have any moral problem with this, and it certainly doesn't show that Romney is cold-hearted. The problem, rather, is that Romney's business experience lies in doing the same thing that has been happening to the economy writ large. Our economic problem isn't that our business can't make a profit, it's that the profit has failed to raise the living standards of most workers. What's good for a turnaround company is not necessarily good for a country as a whole. Or, at least, what the country needs from its government is to complement rather than accelerate the processes Romney unleashed in the private sector. It was fine for Romney the business executive to treat workers in a cold, unsentimental way -- as bumps in the road, as it were - but this is not so fine for the president of the United States.