Poor, poor Bobo. He seems to be reaching the point where he might actually come out and say that the Republican party is a collection of lunatics. Today in “The Conservative Mind” he moans that conservatism has lost half of its intellectual firepower and that Republicans need to recover traditional conservatism or risk becoming irrelevant. Mr. Nocera, in “Romney and the Forbes 400,” says the Republican presidential candidate and the country’s richest of the rich share a fondness for capital gains. In “Mitt’s Mortification” Mr. Bruni says what happens to a politician on the path to the presidency isn’t pretty. Here’s poor Bobo, wringing his hands:
When I joined the staff of National Review as a lowly associate in 1984, the magazine, and the conservative movement itself, was a fusion of two different mentalities.
On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.
But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.
Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.
Recently the blogger Rod Dreher linked to Kirk’s essay, “Ten Conservative Principles,” which gives the flavor of this brand of traditional conservatism. This kind of conservative cherishes custom, believing that the individual is foolish but the species is wise. It is usually best to be guided by precedent.
This conservative believes in prudence on the grounds that society is complicated and it’s generally best to reform it steadily but cautiously. Providence moves slowly but the devil hurries.
The two conservative tendencies lived in tension. But together they embodied a truth that was put into words by the child psychologist John Bowlby, that life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.
The economic conservatives were in charge of the daring ventures that produced economic growth. The traditionalists were in charge of establishing the secure base — a society in which families are intact, self-discipline is the rule, children are secure and government provides a subtle hand.
Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism. But that effort was doomed because in the ensuing years, conservatism changed.
In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.
It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists. There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.
The results have been unfortunate. Since they no longer speak in the language of social order, Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country. Republicans have very little to say to Hispanic voters, who often come from cultures that place high value on communal solidarity.
Republicans repeat formulas — government support equals dependency — that make sense according to free-market ideology, but oversimplify the real world. Republicans like Romney often rely on an economic language that seems corporate and alien to people who do not define themselves in economic terms. No wonder Romney has trouble relating.
Some people blame bad campaign managers for Romney’s underperforming campaign, but the problem is deeper. Conservatism has lost the balance between economic and traditional conservatism. The Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition. It appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.
Next up is Mr. Nocera:
Last week, sandwiched between Monday’s leak of the video in which Mitt Romney dismissed “the 47 percent” and Friday’s release of the Romneys’ 2011 tax returns — showing that they had paid an effective tax rate of 14 percent — Forbes magazine published its annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.
There weren’t a lot of surprises on the Forbes 400. Bill Gates, with an estimated net worth of $66 billion, remains the wealthiest man in the country. He is a whopping $20 billion richer than his pal Warren Buffett, who came in at No. 2, according to Forbes. All the usual suspects were there: Michael Bloomberg; George Soros; the Koch brothers; various descendants of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart; and on and on.
What was illuminating was not so much who was on the list but what they collectively told us about the state of the richest of the rich. Thirty years ago, when Forbes published its first Forbes 400, a net worth of $75 million would get you on the list. Today it takes $1.1 billion. In the last year alone, the cumulative net worth of the wealthiest 400 people, by Forbes’s calculation, rose by $200 billion. That compares with a 4 percent drop in median household income last year, according to the Census Bureau. One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of how powerfully income inequality has taken root.
Like Romney, Forbes magazine is a little defensive about this — and, like Romney, Forbes has adopted a self-justifying narrative. Luisa Kroll, one of the magazine’s “wealth editors,” nods toward “concerns” about income inequality in her introduction to the list, but she goes on to write that “a deeper analysis instills confidence that the American dream is still very much alive.” In fact, it does nothing of the sort.
The fundamental reason the Romneys pay so little in taxes is that the bulk of their income comes from investments and thus is taxed at the capital gains rate of 15 percent. Although Romney himself isn’t close to being rich enough to join the Forbes 400, his reliance on capital gains is a trait he shares with most of the ultrawealthy. It is the thread that ties together the Forbes 400.
Financiers, who make up a large percentage of the Forbes 400, long ago found ways to convert their compensation to capital gains, for instance. Romney, of course, did the same thing when he was running Bain Capital, a private equity firm. But even those who are not on Wall Street rely on capital gains. A large number of the Forbes 400 — “roughly 40 percent,” according to a group called United for a Fair Economy — inherited their wealth. Many others on the list — people who started companies that they’ve since left — are classified by Forbes as investors.
Even many of the corporate executives on the Forbes 400 are likely paying a lower tax rate. Many of them get minimal cash compensation and rely on stock options for the bulk of their wealth. Or they maneuver to take their companies through a leveraged buyout, which reaps them huge potential capital gains. In 2009, according to recent Congressional testimony by Leonard E. Burman, a professor at Syracuse University, the 400 highest-income taxpayers reaped an astounding 16 percent of all capital gains.
All of which would be justifiable if the country got some benefit in return. On “60 Minutes” Sunday night, when Romney was asked about the justification for his low tax rate, he said what most conservatives say, that a low capital gains rate is “the right way to encourage economic growth, to get people to invest, to start businesses, to put people to work.”
This is also what Forbes means when it links its list to “the American dream.” Except that there is no evidence that it’s true. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan was president, the differential between capital gains and ordinary income was eliminated — and the economy soared. The capital gains rate was higher during the Bill Clinton years than in the George W. Bush years, yet the economy did better under Clinton than under Bush.
In the printed copy of his Congressional testimony, Burman has a chart that plots the ups and downs of the economy since the 1950s with changes in the capital gains rate. There is no correlation between the two. The idea that a lower capital gains rate spurs economic growth is one of the enduring myths of conservative thought.
The American dream exists not because of the capital gains differential but in spite of it. It is the tax break that most glaringly exists to benefit the wealthy. If you have any doubts about that, all you need to do is read the latest Forbes 400.
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
That bloodied appendage? The one riddled with holes?
It belongs to Mitt Romney, and we now know that his onetime support for gun control was all that was keeping him from shooting himself in the foot.
Throughout this campaign, he has misfired so repeatedly and phantasmagorically that his wounds make those visited upon Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” look like paper cuts.
But that’s been noted, and there’s a bigger discussion beyond it. How did someone so politically maladroit — a cardboard cutout crossed with an Etch A Sketch — get this far?
We need to remind ourselves that the alternatives were Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann. And we need to ask whether we now have an electoral process so vacuous, vicious and just plain silly that most people in their right minds wouldn’t go anywhere near it.
It chews up candidates and their families, spits them out and cackles with hyperpartisan glee all the while. Yes, those candidates volunteer for it, but still. The process doesn’t necessarily serve some wondrous purpose of culling the herd and toughening the survivors, as the people invested in it — including those of us in the news media — often like to argue. Maybe it just sours them, befouls the atmosphere in which they operate and encourages voters to tune out.
It encourages would-be candidates, watching from the edge of the battlefield, not to step onto it. Mitch Daniels took a pass. So did Jeb Bush. It’s not certain that either of them, in the final analysis, would have been better than Romney. But it’s beyond doubt that the strafing they and their families would have received, along with the compromises they would have been pressured to make, influenced their decisions.
To what bliss can the person who chooses to run look forward? Relentless tedium, for starters. A candidate typically repeats the same 10 to 25 minutes of remarks at least three times a day in at least two time zones a week for at least 10 months on end, if you count the primaries. To embrace that, he or she has to be a narcissist, an automaton, an ideologue or an idealist of the very highest order. And I don’t think the idealists are exactly overrepresented these days.
A candidate must be craven about asking for money and do it round the clock, because at this point so much of it is required that for all Romney’s sterling connections and platinum panhandling, he’s still apparently coming up short. That may be the scariest story of the season.
Due to the differences between a primary and general-election campaign, a candidate must be willing to waffle, and if he or she gets too accustomed to that, it can lead to moments as mortifying as one on the most recent “60 Minutes.”
Scott Pelley, pressing Romney on which tax loopholes he’d close: “The devil’s in the details.”
Romney, refusing to provide any: “The devil’s in the details. The angel is in the policy.”
The hell has no end. The 140-character limit of Twitter, the acceleration of the news cycle and the proliferation of proudly biased newscasts have intensified the patrol for gaffes, heightened the hunger for tiffs and tidbits, ratcheted up the invasiveness.
Over recent days I stumbled upon a headline about Romney’s “enlarged prostate” and, separately, a tasteless examination of the contracts that one of his sons had with a gestational surrogate.
There was also chatter about the orange hue of either his tan or his makeup, though I admit to my own ignoble fascination with this. Halloween’s on the horizon. Is Romney pandering for the pumpkin vote?
The zone of privacy around a candidate has vanished, thanks to prying smartphones — poised, yes, to capture important tells, but poised as well to document meaningless ones.
From strategists and pundits comes a daily vivisection: smirk less, laugh more, fewer neckties, tighter pants. Bit by inevitable bit, a candidate surrenders all spontaneity, along with some of his or her authentic self and a certain measure of joy.
President Obama was also on “60 Minutes,” and what I saw as he answered questions about his record wasn’t the audacity of hope. It was the annoyance of being put through these paces and being second-guessed.
Romney’s bleeding has plenty to do with his intrinsic shortcomings and his shortsightedness: how does a man who has harbored presidential ambitions almost since he was a zygote create a paper trail of offshore accounts and tax returns like his?
But I wonder if we’re not seeing the worst possible version of him, and if it isn’t the ugly flower of the process itself. I wonder, too, what the politicians mulling 2016 make of it, and whether, God help us, we’ll be looking at an even worse crop of candidates then.