New Hampshire: Will Romney's business history and attitudes cost him?

Jan 10, 2012

Assaults on Mitt Romney's career have intensified after the former Massachusetts governor makes an off-the-cuff comment about firing people that his GOP opponents say shows he sought profits at the expense of workers.

Eugene Robinson live chatted about whether or not Romney's business history and attitude will cost him in the New Hampshire primary.

Hi, everyone, and greetings from not-so-freezing New Hampshire. Unusually mild this winter, and not a dap of snow on the ground, but have you heard any of the Republican candidates for president talk about climate change? Didn't think so. Anyway, this is Mitt Romney's big day -- theoretically. The question is whether he did himself much damage with his boast that he likes "being able to fire people who provide me services." Firing people is not terribly popular here, or anywhere, really, except the corridors of Bain Capital... So we'll see. Let's begin.

Isn't the quote about firing people taken out of context? Is it fair to jump on Romney for that even if it does play into the narrative that he is corporate entity in an of himself?

That quote is indeed taken out of context, but not very far out. He was talking about firing insurance companies -- but Romney is, after all, the candidate who reminded us that corporations are people, too. Also, he's the candidate who built a tv ad around a wildly, grossly out-of-context quote from President Obama to the effect that if we keep talking about the economy, we'll lose -- Obama was actually quoting someone from the other side. So Romney has no standing to complain.

Sunday marked the 1-year anniversary of the horrible massacre in Tucson. It also marked the aftermath when you and the rest of the left-wing thug brigade (Paul Krugman, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Markos Moulitsas, etc.) immediately placed partial blame on Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and all the other conservative spokespeople. And it all blew up in your faces. So did you mark the weekend by donning sackcloth and ashes?

Actually, I blamed insane gun laws that allow deranged, unstable, violent individuals to arm themselves with assault weapons and extra-large ammo clips. I stand by that assessment.

Do you think Romney's visible glee in stating that he "likes firing people" suggests his true feelings. Everyone talks about it being taken "out of context." Not exactly. I view this more akin to Bush grinning during the debate when talking about how many people he executed in Texas. It seems to reveal the "real man" off of staff-provided talking points. Or am I reading too much into it?

I think the truth is that Romney fervently believes in the "creative destruction" capitalism he practiced so lucratively at Bain. It is hard to tell whether he has any understanding of the disruption caused to laid-off workers and their families. I say it's hard to tell because he doesn't talk about this toll, he talks instead about the overall net economic benefits.

I think it is telling that John Huntsman's comment during this weekend's debate how Romney et al were basically making anything involving the president into some sort of horrible sin was devisive and that most Americans wanted to hear about country not politics was the freshest comment coming out of the GOP in a few years. It seems like outside of Paul and Huntsman, the rest of the GOP seems to run on a platform of "Obama Bad. Conservative Good." and wait for the meager applause. This might work for the base in the strictest sense, but what about the other 80% of Americans. It's just offputting. As a Democrat, I can honestly say I would love a Obama-Hunstman debate. Why is it that the most knowledgeable and some might say best qualified candidate (Huntsman) has been so marginalized in favor of man-on-dog Santorum and rattlesnake shooting Perry?

The candidates are appealing to the GOP base, and they believe the base wants red meat. I agree that the moment you describe was perhaps Huntsman's finest thus far. We'll see if it gets him any traction here in New Hampshire.

Hi Eugene -- among the many things that I dislike about Mitt Romney, I find it totally preposterous that, in Saturday night's debate, he tried to disown any knowledge of the right of privacy long ago established by the U.S. Supreme Court. I guess he must have played hooky at Harvard Law the day they discussed the Griswold case. Totally phony and disingenuous. Here's my question -- do you think voters will really see through this example (one of many) of brazen pandering, or will it mostly go overlooked in the general?

I've got to say that I think the whole privacy-contraception-Griswold discussion Saturday night probably caused eyes to glaze over. Basically, none of the GOP candidates can acknowledge a constitutional right to privacy because that's the basis for Roe v. Wade.

Dear Eugene, Thanks for your thoughts and insights on this interesting topic of conversation. My comment is on Romney's repeated attempts to label President Obama as not having had an actual job. The fact that he has been (probably among other things) a community organizer, college professor, U.S. senator, and president (!) strangely does not qualify. How do you see this kind of dismissive attitude toward certain professions fitting in with Romney's general economic orientation? Is businessman the only profession he cares to recognize as an "actual" job?

Apparently. One of the things that has irked me most about this GOP campaign is the assumption that government jobs, for example, are somehow not real jobs. So much for all you teachers, police officers, firefighters...

The question is: How can Newt be such a hypocrite, and do exactly what he accussed Romney of doing, now that he has a PAC behind him? Romney will come out of this only stronger, because his competitors are now grasping at straws. In the end, people see how Romney get things accomplished, and is a proven leader. He has a good record of making things work, and we need that in Washington.

The question "How can Newt be such a hypocrite?" kind of answers itself, doesn't it, in that Gingrich has always been prone to self-contradiction and, well, hypocrisy. For him to complain about rough language in Romney's ads is priceless, given his habit of verbal slashing and burning. That said, I'm not sure that your conclusion is right. I think dissection of Romney's career at Bain Capital will not help his candidacy and might well hurt it.

Hi Gene - In a "normal" primary cycle, I think Romney's business history would indeed cost him. But considering the GOP field this time around, I think an actual scandal of some sort regarding Romney would have to come out in order for him to have any realistic shot at losing the nomination. Even speaking as a far-liberal leaning voter, I think it's a shame that there's not a credible challenge from any of the other GOP candidates. And really, if any of the others (I'm looking at you, Ron Paul) decide to run as an independent, Obama will win re-election in a landslide.

You're probably right, but we'll know a lot more tonight when returns come in. There are a lot of conservatives who still harbor suspicions about Romney, and his remarks about firing people are not the kind of impression you want to make the day before people start voting. That said, his great fortune is that opposition to his coronation has not coalesced behind one alternative. As long as the anybody-but-Mitt vote is fractured, he stands to win.

I have enjoyed your columns for many, many years and watch you on MSNBC. I was truly disappointed on your comments taking Romney 's words totally and unequivocally out of context, you are too smart and honorable to make such comments out of context. Come on, Gene you know that you were playing politics. I expect so much more from you.

I believe I acknowledged the words were being taken out of context -- as Romney has done to Obama's words -- but the truth is that no matter how much context you throw in, what he said will hurt him. One of his problems is that he gives the impression of being out of touch with the daily struggles of most Americans facing a bad economy. To say that he likes being ablt to fire people, even when it's clear that he meant he likes being able to fire companies, strikes a discordant note, to say the least. People here are smart. They know the context. They'll make up their minds.

It doesn't matter what Romney says, there will be a nugget of gold for his opponents to use: "Corporations are people" and "I like firing people" will be millstones around Romney's neck. And the fall campaign ads write themselves: all the Dems need to do is find someone in every single congressional district in the nation who lost their job due to the predatory nature of Bain Capital.

I'm guessing those ads are already in production.

Do you think Romney will end up being viewed as a big phony like Kerry ultimately was (thanks to a number of factors, some of them quite unfair portrayals by his opponenets, but some self-inflicted)? Painting him as a rich guy who's out of touch with real people's problems seems like an easy task. And he never has been able to overcome his lack of authenticity.

Remember that one of John Kerry's strengths was his record as a war hero -- so the swift-boat crowd went straight at it, and turned it into a negative. Romney believes his great strength is his record in business. His opponents seem to be recycling the technique that worked against Kerry. 

This is quite an unusual selection process for the Republican nominee.The least popular candidate among conservatives(Mitt Romney) may end up being the nominee due to conservatives splitting their votes among 3 or 4 alternatives. Without a clear rival emerging, candidates like Perry and Gingrich continue in the race paving the way for Romney to win more primaries as the process plays out. Is being "less conservative" actually helping Romney at this point? It seems quite ironic that the search for a pure conservative may result in a moderate like Romney as the nominee. The effect on turnout in the general election could prove pivotal.

It is, indeed, a weird campaign. But I think you also have to ask whether any of the "pure conservatives" in the race would have a prayer against President Obama. If you eliminate Huntsman (since he worked for Obama, and therefore can't possibly be pure), I think not.

Romney's quote about firing people...and in his case his insurer, shows how out of touch he is. Can you imagine one of us firing our health insurer and trying to get other insurance, especially if we fire our insurer because they fail to pay our full hospital or doctor bills. He is speaking like the millionaire he is!

That's a great point. Many people don't have the option.

I was shocked to hear Gingrich question the benefits of capitalism. I never thought I'd hear that out of his mouth. I don't believe him - or any of the other candidates - however. How are they getting *any* traction out of their criticism of Romney's consulting work? I didn't see any of them out at the Occupy protests.

But there's plenty of middle ground between corporate-raider capitalism and the Occupy protests. That's the territory where Gingrich and the others want to pitch their tents.

The shocking part of this is that Newt acknowledged and accepted Todd's endorsement. I laughed till I nearly cried!

Like somebody said, this is a really weird year.

Everybody, and I mean everybody fires people. And those that do the firing are from all political and religious walks of life. Yes, Democrats also fire people. With Romney, he was not firing poor working people, but rather wealthy company executives who could easily get hired elsewhere.

Well, no. He was also laying off many thousands of workers who could not "easily" find new jobs. He says his career at Bain resulted in a net gain of something like 100,000 jobs. Analysts dispute this number. But in any event, it's not true that just wealthy executives ultimately got the ax.

Basically, none of the GOP candidates can acknowledge a constitutional right to privacy because that's the basis for Roe v. Wade. - So, do you think Barack Obama could have answered it. Obama needs a teleprompter before him in order to speak.

President Obama has taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, ranked as one of the nation's finest. So yes, of course he could have answered the question.

And I am willing to bet that photo of a young Romney and his investment banking buddies thowing dollars in the air and grinning like Gordon Gekko will find a place in the Democratic media machine.

In think so, too. 

Taking Romney in context, firing your health insurance company isn't actually easy (or enjoyable) at all - if you have coverage through your employer, often there's only one option, and if you buy insurance on the open market, there are few affordable options, if any. Not to mention that you would still have to do underwriting that wouldn't cover pre-existing conditions - especially if the Republicans kill the health care bill, which is slowly improving things. So not only does Romney sound insensitive out of context, he sounds clueless IN context as well, despite his own work on healthcare. I haven't seen much discussion of that.

Now, thanks to you, we've seen some discussion.

Is there anyone in the GOP field who, you think, could actually beat Obama? I readily admit to being a liberal and to it being awfully early, but, truly, is there anyone out there who could stand toe to toe with Obama?

Romney could. I don't think he will, but he could. Look, this is going to be a close election. The GOP nominee, whoever it is, probably starts with a floor of 45 percent of the popular vote. It would be hard for a Republican to get less. More likely, this will be a 52-48 or even a 51-49 election. Any Democrat who looks at the GOP circus and expects a cakewalk is in for a rude surprise, I believe.

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Green Day What is the more worthwhile pursuit? Working with companies to restructure so that they eventually turn or profit, saving jobs in the long run -- or doing nothing and allowing the company to fail thereby having all the employees lose their job?

It depends on how much you reinvest in the company -- and how much you, the corporate raider, strip out to augment your own vast wealth. That would be the question.


And that would be the last answer for today, folks. Thanks for a lively hour, and I'll see you again next week -- from my home state of South Carolina.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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