It occurs to me that there are reasonable numbers of people who will want to support Mitt in conversations today, but who are, by temperament and history, unaccustomed to doing so. This is a guide to the two conversational tacks that I find most effective in appealing to center left people, although it’s not as polished as I’d like. Like many of us, I’ve spent the last week a little stunned by the terrible political news (Nate Silver, for instance, has moved the race from being essentially a toss-up to a more than 2/3 likely Obama win). I'd love to hear criticisms, improvements, and corrections, as this is not an infrequent conversation for me.
Obviously, there are other important lines of conversation. The most obvious to me are rule of law and immigration, Fast and Furious, religious freedom, energy policy, foreign policy (both trade and defense), judicial picks, labor reform, Obamacare, Mexico City Policy, Planned Parenthood and SSM, school choice in DC and for kids on federal tuition, and the details of entitlement reform and taxes. Those all depend to a greater extent on knowing where your interlocutor stands, though, and this is my attempt at a generic approach to a presumably center-left person who has expressed curiosity about why you/ a woman/ a Hispanic/ they/ a good person would/ should vote for Romney.
The most elevator pitch says that you can give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, and you can teach him to fish and see him become a productive part of the economy, and that there’s a time and place for each of these approaches. Borrowing money in his name to give him fish, though, is evil, as someone struggling to support himself already is probably not going to be able to cope with the future burden of buying his own fish and paying for his borrowed fish.
The longer version of that is; America is borrowing more than it can afford. Timothy Geitner, in Congressional testimony, has said that Obama has no plans to stop doing so. He does want to increase taxes on the rich, but not by nearly enough to cover the deficit. Even if he did have a plan, the budgets he puts forward are gimmicks; they get voted down unanimously, without a single supporting vote from either a Democrat or a Republican (those politically unacceptable budgets are the ones being defended in the linked Geitner video; the current reality involves far more deficits). Geitner does not dispute the Congressional Budget Office based claim that the Federal Government collapses in 2027, although the truth is that it’s difficult to tell when investors would lose confidence in the government’s intent to make good on their bonds.
When the collapse comes, it will not be like Greece or Spain, where the impact is cushioned by other states able and willing to bail out the failures. No one is rich enough to rescue America, and China, Japan, and Europe have their own problems. You might think that if the government ceases to be able to borrow and simply defaults on its loans, Argentina-style, that this would require a 40%-60% cut. 40% is pretty bad; for many people on a low fixed government income, a 40% cut would significantly shorten their lifespan. That’s using static rather than dynamic analysis, though; a sudden 40% cut in government spending would mean an unprecedented recession, even before considering the impact of defaulting on the government’s bonds. During the Great Depression the government was still able to tax and borrow enough to create a safety net. Not if we default.
Since raising enough money to balance the budget would require large middle class tax hikes as well as large hikes on the rich, and there is a strong bipartisan consensus against doing this, the election could sweep the Democrats into a strong House majority, a filibuster proof senate majority, and an Obama second term, without any more chance of the scale of tax hikes needed being passed than there was the last time this happened. In 2009, you may remember, he promised to halve the deficit in his first term, and appointed a bipartisan commission to achieve this, before ignoring all of their recommendations. Republican opposition is not the reason he failed, as he took no steps towards this aim at a time when there was no Republican barrier to his plans in the House, the Senate, or the White House.
The Ryan Plan, on the other hand, would achieve a balanced budget, and has already repeatedly passed the House. Since Ryan is interested in actually fixing the problem, he has worked with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, with Mitt’s support, and come up with a twist on his Medicare reform plan that seems likely to be able to pass the Senate. Romney, when he was Governor of Massachusetts, faced an analogous challenge; he inherited a budget with severe problems and persuaded his 85% big government Democratic legislature to accept some enormous cuts. His inherited deficit was replaced by a rainy day fund.
To put it another way, Obama has not tried to cut the deficit, and has shown little ability to get legislation passed even when his party had total control over Congress. Mitt is heavily focused on the deficit, and has shown the ability to pass legislation even in the face of a hostile legislature. Given that reform is needed, in the strong sense of the term “needed”, that might sound like it’s enough. Unfortunately, in the past some Presidents have wanted to cut spending and have failed to do so, despite getting legislation passed; Reagan’s grand compromise is perhaps the most famous of these. Good intent and popularity simply aren’t enough. You need to understand budgets and to be familiar with the ways that bureaucrats avoid implementing cuts. Obama, obviously, has no experience in managing downsizing. Whether he was a Community Organizer and not running anything, or a generally voting “present” state legislator, or a United States Senator making votes, such as his debt ceiling vote, that he would later say were for political reasons, he has lived a life without full responsibility for anything until he became President. As President, just as when he was a legislator, cutting has not been his focus.
Romney, on the other hand, has cut, and cut a lot; America has literally never elected a President with so much experience in bureaucratic and budgetary reform, a man with detailed knowledge of so many sectors of the American economy. This isn’t just important for his ability to make bureaucracies actually comply with the demand to reduce costs, although he has worked with numerous government agencies, recalcitrant management and labor unions, and entrenched interests at the Olympics to make sure that they did. It’s also important because the important thing in cutting is to avoid causing excessive damage to the organization you’re reforming. Romney’s opponents sometimes describe him as a corporate raider, someone who engaged in hostile takeovers, or try to remind people of Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, who purchased companies and broke them up, selling them for parts. That wasn’t really Bain Capital’s business plan, though. Instead, Bain was the outgrowth of a consulting firm that was frustrated by its clients' failures to implement reforms. The idea was that they would buy companies in order to get complete control, then make sure that the recommended reforms actually took place. Sometimes the companies failed, and Bain ended up looking kind of like Gere’s company, but those tended to be the deals where Bain lost money. Bain’s big successes took place where they purchased (or helped start) a company that became an enormous success, like Staples or Sports Authority. If you want to turn a struggling company into a successful one, the will and ability to fire people simply isn’t enough; you need to know how to cut without destroying value.
An example Mitt likes to give is his reform of Massachusetts homeless shelters. The system when he took over was that the state would provide a certain number of beds in a variety of shelters, but that if you got to a shelter and it was full, you’d be put up in a hotel at the state’s expense. Since the hotels were nicer than the shelters, people would ask around, find out which shelter was fullest, and go to that one in the hope of getting the hotel bed. Mitt changed the system so that the person who got to the shelter first got the hotel bed, not the guy who got there last. With the incentive to find full shelters gone, people would go to the most convenient shelter for them and hotel bed purchases (and empty homeless shelters) went down dramatically. The wrong way of going about cutting shelters would have been to eliminate beds and/ or staff, which would not have cut costs much, but which would have led to a reduction in the care provided to the needy. The right way saw both the needy and the taxpayer protected.
If you care about the wellbeing of those on benefits, it’s important that those benefits are cut by someone who knows what they’re doing; they’ll be cut anyway, and it’s better to have it done gradually in a way that avoids as much harm as possible, rather than cut in an emergency in a way that cannot avoid wrecking lives. Even if you don’t care much about the welfare of those on benefits, you should recall the impact of Reagan’s disability benefit reform. On taking power, he responded to the considerable fraud in the system by dramatically increasing eligibility requirements. There were many victims of his policy and Congress, led by Jim Shannon, responded to the feelings of outrage by reversing the reform and reducing the ability to detect fraud even below the levels it had been under Carter. Today, disability fraud is one of the hardest problems in entitlements; even if you could detect it (which is not cheap, easy, or 100% accurate), anyone spending a decade out of the workforce will have a tough time returning, no matter how unreasonable the basis for leaving it.
Changing the programs that people rely on is often extremely painful to the losers in the change and we owe a duty to them to do all that we can to avoid unnecessary changes and failed reforms. Change is also enormously costly. The most frequent problem in this regard is defense spending, where "cuts" often end up costing us more when we end up purchasing in a hurry to respond to a crisis; Mitt would increase defense spending because there are a number of obvious crises that may force us into that position, and it is better to be prepared. Measuring twice and cutting once is the classic advice, but it’s even more important to know how and what to measure and cut. When a President finds out long after passing the largest stimulus in history that his "shovel ready jobs" plan could never have worked, despite having supported new projects all his political life, how likely do you think it is that he'll understand the fundamentals of cutting, which he has not done? How likely do you think it is that that ignorance would be harmless?