In the service of that ambition, Romney has embraced the values and the priorities of a Republican Party that has grown increasingly reactionary and rigid in its social vision. It is a party dominated by those who despise government and see no value in public efforts aimed at ameliorating the immense and rapidly increasing inequalities in American society. A visitor to the F.D.R. Memorial, in Washington, is confronted by these words from Roosevelt’s second Inaugural Address, etched in stone: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide for those who have too little.” Romney and the leaders of the contemporary G.O.P. would consider this a call to class warfare. Their effort to disenfranchise poor, black, Hispanic, and student voters in many states deepens the impression that Romney’s remarks about the “forty-seven per cent” were a matter not of “inelegant” expression, as he later protested, but of genuine conviction.
Romney’s conviction is that the broad swath of citizens who do not pay federal income tax—a category that includes pensioners, soldiers, low-income workers, and those who have lost their jobs—are parasites, too far gone in sloth and dependency to be worth the breath one might spend asking for their votes. His descent to this cynical view—further evidenced by his selection of a running mate, Paul Ryan, who is the epitome of the contemporary radical Republican—has been dishearteningly smooth. He in essence renounced his greatest achievement in public life—the Massachusetts health-care law—because its national manifestation, Obamacare, is anathema to the Tea Party and to the G.O.P. in general. He has tacked to the hard right on abortion, immigration, gun laws, climate change, stem-cell research, gay rights, the Bush tax cuts, and a host of foreign-policy issues. He has signed the Grover Norquist no-tax-hike pledge and endorsed Ryan’s winner-take-all economics.
But what is most disquieting is Romney’s larger political vision. When he said that Obama “takes his political inspiration from Europe, and from the socialist democrats in Europe,” he was not only signalling Obama’s “otherness” to one kind of conservative voter; he was suggesting that Obama’s liberalism is in conflict with a uniquely American strain of individualism. The theme recurred when Romney and his allies jumped on Obama’s observation that no entrepreneur creates a business entirely alone (“You didn’t build that”). The Republicans continue to insist on the “Atlas Shrugged” fantasy of the solitary entrepreneurial genius who creates jobs and wealth with no assistance at all from government or society.
If the keynote of Obama’s Administration has been public investment—whether in infrastructure, education, or health—the keynote of Romney’s candidacy has been private equity, a realm in which efficiency and profitability are the supreme values. As a business model, private equity has had a mixed record. As a political template, it is stunted in the extreme. Private equity is concerned with rewarding winners and punishing losers. But a democracy cannot lay off its failing citizens. It cannot be content to leave any of its citizens behind—and certainly not the forty-seven per cent whom Romney wishes to fire from the polity.
Private equity has served Romney well—he is said to be worth a quarter of a billion dollars. Wealth is hardly unique in a national candidate or in a President, but, unlike Franklin Roosevelt—or Teddy Roosevelt or John Kennedy—Romney seems to be keenly loyal to the perquisites and the presumptions of his class, the privileged cadre of Americans who, like him, pay extraordinarily low tax rates, with deductions for corporate jets. They seem content with a system in which a quarter of all earnings and forty per cent of all wealth go to one per cent of the population. Romney is among those who see business success as a sure sign of moral virtue.
The rest of us will have to take his word for it. Romney, breaking with custom, has declined to release more than two years of income-tax returns—a refusal of transparency that he has not afforded his own Vice-Presidential nominee. Even without those returns, we know that he has taken advantage of the tax code’s gray areas, including the use of offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. For all his undoubted patriotism, he evidently believes that money belongs to an empyrean far beyond such territorial attachments.
But holding foreign bank accounts is not a substitute for experience in foreign policy. In that area, he has outsourced his views to mediocre, ideologically driven advisers like Dan Senor and John Bolton. He speaks in Cold War jingoism. On a brief foray abroad this summer, he managed, in rapid order, to insult the British, to pander crudely to Benjamin Netanyahu in order to win the votes and contributions of his conservative Jewish and Evangelical supporters, and to dodge ordinary questions from the press in Poland. On the thorniest of foreign-policy problems—from Pakistan to Syria—his campaign has offered no alternatives except a set of tough-guy slogans and an oft-repeated faith in “American exceptionalism.”
In pursuit of swing voters, Romney and Ryan have sought to tamp down, and keep vague, the extremism of their economic and social commitments. But their signals to the Republican base and to the Tea Party are easily read: whatever was accomplished under Obama will be reversed or stifled. Bill Clinton has rightly pointed out that most Presidents set about fulfilling their campaign promises. Romney, despite his pose of chiselled equanimity, has pledged to ravage the safety net, oppose progress on marriage equality, ignore all warnings of ecological disaster, dismantle health-care reform, and appoint right-wing judges to the courts. Four of the nine Supreme Court Justices are in their seventies; a Romney Administration may well have a chance to replace two of the more liberal incumbents, and Romney’s adviser in judicial affairs is the embittered far-right judge and legal scholar Robert Bork. The rightward drift of a court led by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito—a drift marked by appalling decisions like Citizens United—would only intensify during a Romney Presidency. The consolidation of a hard-right majority would be a mortal threat to the ability of women to make their own decisions about contraception and pregnancy, the ability of institutions to alleviate the baneful legacies of past oppression and present prejudice, and the ability of American democracy to insulate itself from the corrupt domination of unlimited, anonymous money. Romney has pronounced himself “severely conservative.” There is every reason to believe him.