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Monsieur Romney's attack on American values
The GOP frontrunner blasts the president as "tak[ing] his inspiration from the capitals of Europe." But the truth is, that's exactly what Mitt's doing
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
I

t's not that he speaks French, but what he spoke on election night in New Hampshire puts the presumptive Republican nominee at odds with the essential character of America. In a well-coiffed gentrification of the racist-tinged attack on Barack Obama as "the other" — a somehow alien and illegitimate president — Flip Romney, in full pander mode to the paranoia of the far right, arraigned the president for "tak[ing] his inspiration from the capitals of Europe" — and seeking "to turn America into a European-style entitlement society." 

In reality, Obama has been defending and extending the nation's long march toward fulfilling its founding ideals. It's Romney who, on critical economic issues, takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe — where governments are now gripped by failing policies that echo the hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing laissez-faire ideology of 19th century robber barons who lived the gilded life of the Gilded Age, while the vast majority of people endured continuing deprivation and recurring downturn. 

It's Romney, not the president, who's in thrall to a European doctrine that is now being increasingly questioned in Europe itself.

First, "the entitlement society" is just a nasty phrase to deride the thoroughly American, democratically driven movement that has succeeded in making our society fairer, more decent, and more prosperous for all. This hasn't been uninterrupted — and it has been undermined in recent decades by the rise of supply-side economics that are nothing more than a cover for supplying the most to those that already have the most. Obama's call for economic justice goes back to the early decades of the republic — for example, Andrew Jackson's fierce determination to stand for "the humble members of society, the farmers, mechanics, and laborers." That America, the real America, was and still is purpose as much as a place; the work of building it will never finally be finished and has often lagged behind. 

Bismarck's Germany enacted the first old-age insurance system a decade before the Progressive Era. Does that make Social Security a sinister European idea? To the contrary, the president's defense of the social safety net — of Social Security, Medicare, health-care reform — is as American as Theodore Roosevelt, who fought for national health insurance and for the progressive income tax a century ago. 

The Republican Roosevelt left the revanchist party of his day. He surely wouldn't belong to Romney's today, as the candidate pursues the maldistribution of tax breaks to the wealthy, the repeal of medical coverage for tens of millions, privatization of Medicare, and wholesale deregulation — all to license exploitation and speculation by those TR denounced as "malefactors of great wealth." 

Romney, not Obama, betrays our history. And Mitt's explanation for his job-destroying profiteering at Bain Capital reprises the rationalizations of the malefactors — when they bothered to have them. Romney insists that objections to what he did at Bain represent "envy" — that he was merely practicing the capitalism of "creative destruction." Ironically, the phrase derives from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, although it was finalized and popularized by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan — no liberal, to say the least — has observed: "The problem with creative destruction is that it is destruction" — and we "must address the problems [of] those who are on the destruction side." For Romney, the problem is that his version of the process created hundreds of millions of dollars for him — and the destruction of the livelihoods of ordinary hard-working Americans who are already telling their stories on television. 

That defeated Romney once already — in his 1994 Senate contest with Ted Kennedy. And the fierce cries of the GOP establishment against "class warfare" manifest a fear that it could happen again in 2012. 

Was Theodore Roosevelt waging "class warfare" when he scorned the selfishness and misconduct of the malefactors? Was he uttering an alien notion — or in Romney's infelicitous phrase, "for Pete's sake," a European heresy? Romney's appeal to xenophobia lies in the face of a national history which has seen presidents of both parties, from FDR to Eisenhower, and yes, Reagan, advance or accept the progress that Romney now disdains as un-American. And if you believe him — and that's a challenge since he seems to believe in everything and nothing — that's the progress Romney would roll back. 

His quarrel with the American journey doesn't end there. At the heart of our national experience is a long struggle to make real the ideal of "liberty and justice for all." But in running for president, Romney rushed to sign on with the immigrant-bashers; he would consign affirmative action and voting rights for African-Americans and other minorities to the dogmatic jurisprudence of ultra-conservative judges. And in a blatant reversal of his one-time claim that he was "better" on gay rights than Ted Kennedy, Romney not only campaigns against marriage equality, but against civil unions — and even employment non-discrimination.

Romney's America would deny basic civil rights — and that's not America at all. He's the one who's on the wrong side of the American idea. 

Finally, he's the one who's most flagrantly borrowed the most flawed of European ideas — the economics of cutting too fast, too far, and too rigidly. Although he never admits it — I assume as a self-styled "numbers guy" he knows it — Romney's policy of cut, cap, and balance would impose on the United States the same constricting austerity that has driven Britain into another downturn, led to negative growth in Germany, and triggered a Eurozone-wide slump or double-dip recession. This was not inevitable, but was government-made in the "capitals of Europe"; Romney disparages them, but would duplicate their ideology. 

Taken together, his program of heedless deregulation and fiscal paralysis would leave America helpless to deter or counter economic crisis, promote recovery, or prevent recession from descending into depression — which is what this president did in 2009. Instead, as happened in the 19th century, and all the way up to the New Deal, Romney's government would stand aside as the cycle of boom and bust let the few take high-risk gambles and then mostly survive, while most Americans would be underpaid and underprotected. It was one of the singular triumphs of the last century that a pragmatic America refused to accept this as inevitable; whether it was a Roosevelt, a Kennedy, or a Nixon, presidents more or less acted successfully to rescue the economy when it was in trouble. Flip Mitt would prefer the presently dominant economic model in London, Paris, and Berlin. 

He's the candidate who offered the criticism — but it's Romney, not the president, who's in thrall to a European doctrine that, to be fair, is now being increasingly questioned in Europe itself. 

I doubt Romney will give up the xenophobia anytime soon. It plays well among primary voters who are suspicious that he's not reliably reactionary; it's a code-coated formula to depict Barack Obama as someone from another country, another continent, another tradition. In that sense, it's a modulated form of "birtherism."

Romney's right when he says this election is about "the soul of America." With his hostility to economic justice and the social safety net, his record in business, his desertion of the American quest for equal rights, and his embrace of floundering European economics, he would, if he ever got there, be the president of a very different and lesser United States. 

He asked for it. So it's only appropriate to conclude that, in more ways than one, Monsieur Romney is a 21st century robber baron. 

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