The Great Bain Diversion

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The great debate about whether Mitt Romney was a vulture capitalist or venture capitalist at Bain Capital is useful and interesting, but not for the reasons many people pretend it is. The country benefits from a frank discussion about the wages of capitalism and what limits, if any, we should place on free markets. But the specifics of what Bain did under Mitt Romney don’t tell us much about what kind of President he would be, or what sort of economy he would preside over.

For openers, a President’s influence over the economy tends to be exaggerated. Private-sector dynamics, especially those in in Europe and Asia, probably matter more to the American work force right now than federal policy. And remember that government moves exceedingly slowly, making it an inefficient hand on the tiller. Romney’s inauguration wouldn’t come for another 12 months, after which it would take Congress a few more months to pass a new economic program. It would take months after that for those policies to take full effect. So it would be fully two years before a Romney program was actually impacting the U.S. economy. By then it’s entirely possible that our economic situation will look quite different, and that the recession remedies people talk about today will be obsolete.

The important issue isn’t so much how Romney will “get us out of this recession.” It’s about the larger and long-term issues what he considers a fair distribution of taxes and wealth, and the size and role of government. That’s a great debate to have in the general election. But for the purposes of the Republican primary, it’s a red herring. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all more or less agree on those points: They all want dramatically lower taxes, especially for the wealthy, and a much smaller federal government. Calling Romney a vulture is a pure emotional play, and a disingenuous one.

These are all reasons, by the way, why we ought to hear more from the candidates about foreign policy–especially from Romney, who has no direct experience in this area and whose views feel like the generic product of outside advisers and a desire to please the Bill Kristols of the world. American Presidents have broad power–increasingly so over the past decade–to take dramatic action overseas, and they often don’t need (or they at least successfully ignore) Congress’s blessing. Think about the intervention in Libya, the drone campaign in Pakistan, the bin Laden mission, troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, warrantless wiretaps and other secret surveillance programs, vast swaths of terrorist detainee policy. These are areas where a President has immediate and largely unfettered influence. They’re at least as important as the chimerical obsession over near-term “job creation,” no matter what the polls say.