By David Brooks
Let’s say you are president in a time of a sustained economic slowdown. You initiated a series of big policies that you thought were going to turn the economy around, but they didn’t work — either because they were insufficient or ineffective. How do you run for re-election under these circumstances?
Do you spend the entire campaign saying that things would have been even worse if you hadn’t acted the way you did? No. That would be pathetic. You go on the attack. Instead of defending your economic policies, you attack modern capitalism as it now exists. You blame the system for the economy. You do this with double ferocity if your opponent happens to be the embodiment of that system.
This is what the Obama campaign appears to have done in recent months. Instead of defending the policies of the last four years, the campaign has begun a series of attacks on the things people don’t like about modern capitalism.
They don’t like the way unsuccessful firms go bust. Obama hit that with ads about a steel plant closure a few months ago. They don’t like C.E.O. salaries. President Obama hits that regularly. They don’t like financial shenanigans. Obama hits that. They don’t like outsourcing and offshoring. This week, Obama has been hitting that.
The president is now running an ad showing Mitt Romney tunelessly singing “America the Beautiful,” while the text on screen blasts him for shipping jobs to China, India and Mexico.
The accuracy of the ad has been questioned by the various fact-checking outfits. That need not detain us. It’s safest to assume that all the ads you see this year will be at least somewhat inaccurate because the ad-makers now take dishonesty as a mark of their professional toughness.
What matters is the ideology behind the ad: the assumption that Bain Capital, the private-equity firm founded by Romney, should not have invested in companies that hired workers abroad; the assumption that hiring Mexican or Indian workers is unpatriotic; the assumption that no worthy person would do what most global business leaders have been doing for the past half-century.
This ad — and the rhetoric the campaign is using around it — challenges the entire logic of capitalism as it has existed over several decades. It’s part of a comprehensive attack on the economic system Romney personifies.
This shift of focus has been audacious. Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.
But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked. It has shifted the focus of the race from being about big government, which Obama represents, to being about capitalism, which Romney represents.
Just as Republicans spent years promising voters that they could have tax cuts forever, now the Democrats are promising voters that they can have all the benefits of capitalism without the downsides, like plant closures, rich C.E.O.’s and outsourcing. Just as Republicans used to force Democrats into the eat-your-spinach posture (you need to have high taxes if you want your programs), now Democrats are casting Republicans into the eat-your-spinach posture (you need to accept outsourcing and the pains of creative destruction if you want your prosperity).
The Romney campaign doesn’t seem to know how to respond. For centuries, business leaders have been inept when writers, intellectuals and politicians attacked capitalism, and, so far, the Romney campaign is continuing that streak.
One thing is for sure. As Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has said again and again, it’s not enough to say that capitalism will make you money. You can’t fight what is essentially a moral critique with economics.
Romney is going to have to define a vision of modern capitalism. He’s going to have to separate his vision from the scandals and excesses we’ve seen over the last few years. He needs to define the kind of capitalist he is and why the country needs his virtues.
Let’s face it, he’s not a heroic entrepreneur. He’s an efficiency expert. It has been the business of his life to take companies that were mediocre and sclerotic and try to make them efficient and dynamic. It has been his job to be the corporate version of a personal trainer: take people who are puffy and self-indulgent and whip them into shape.
That’s his selling point: rigor and productivity. If he can build a capitalist vision around that, he’ll thrive. If not, he’s a punching bag.