I’m glad to see the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page echoing Troy’s advice to Mitt Romney to get out in front of the Bain-bashing and make a full-throated defense of free market capitalism. But as both Troy and the Journal seem to allude to, Romney doesn’t appear capable or willing to make the case for democratic capitalism; the kind of market economy that emphasizes equal access and opportunities instead of guaranteed outcomes.
The way I’m using the term, democratic capitalism disdains the unfairness many perceive in the crony capitalism of Obama’s Solyndra deal, and in the bailouts of companies deemed too big to fail. Americans don’t like it when public employee unions get tenure protections and better benefits than the private sector. People feel cheated when General Electric pays no federal income taxes thanks to loopholes only the wealthy like Warren Buffet can exploit. For the free market to work, people have to trust it, and right now Wall Street, the White House, and many other entrenched special interests from unions to rent-seeking businesses are making everyday Americans think the capitalistic system they’ve been sold is far from democratic.
In a sense, democratic capitalism is at the heart of Sarah Palin’s appeal. Her entire career in Alaska was built around taking down entrenched interests enriching themselves at the expense of a fair system. She exposed a corrupt state oil and gas commission; disrupted the state GOP’s patrician good old boys club by defeating an incumbent governor; and won a fight with a major oil company over its ability to exploit Alaska’s natural wealth without sharing some of it with residents. These were the accomplishments that made her a maverick and put her on John McCain’s vice presidential radar. When Palin was toying with a presidential run this time around, she gave a major speech blasting distortions of the economy that make the market less fair, and ultimately, less free. Better than anyone to date, Palin communicates the Tea Party’s angst over Big Government into a larger narrative about the dangers posed by any segments of society that threaten the democratic element in America’s form of capitalism.
Now, I’m not saying that Mitt Romney is a foe of democratic capitalism. What I’m saying is that he doesn’t appear comfortable articulating his understanding of the free market in a message that applies equally to executives and frontline workers. That’s probably because he’s never been a frontline worker. Of course, he’s worked hard – graduating with honors from Harvard law and business schools demands it – but as the son of an auto executive and governor whose first job out of graduate school was telling CEO’s how to fix their companies, Mitt Romney has never experienced capitalism from the factory floor. That means he will have a hard time explaining the virtues of capitalism to people near the destructive end of capitalism’s creativity.
Fairly or not, if Romney is the nominee liberals will savage him as a member of the 1% who made millions replacing people with technology and exporting many of the remaining jobs overseas. Conservatives who favor the free market should hope that Romney discovers how to articulate the democratic element of capitalism soon and well. He could start by reading Troy’s excellent remarks as soon as possible.