The Harry Potter movies have now all been made and will be forgotten soon enough, and all the Harry Potter books, which every kid in the world just had to read the day they hit the bookstores, will probably be forgotten too. People will soon wonder what all that was about. No one in Hollywood will reboot that franchise – there’s no possible prequel and the narrative arch is as complete as it can be – and J. K. Rowling will write no more boy-wizard books. She’s moved on with a book for adults, about adults – and Harry and Ron and Hermione have reverted to Daniel and Rupert and Emma too – all doing other things these days. All that’s left is a Hogwarts theme park here and there, with booths offering toy wands, much as they used to sell Genuine Davey Crockett Coonskin Caps at Disneyland in the fifties. It’s over, save for the sudden spike in the reading skills of a generation and the memory of a few good but sappy lines about courage and tolerance and loyalty. Some of us remember what Hagrid was always telling Harry – “Dragons are seriously misunderstood creatures.”
He was wrong – the dragons in those books were quite irredeemably nasty – but his heart was in the right place. It’s far too easy to just dismiss what seems really awful – in dragons or people. Yes, your initial impression may be quite right – what you see really is as bad as it seems, or as bad as everyone told you – but wise and generous people try to see more. Your first take may be mistaken. That is possible, and people who just don’t want to understand all possibilities lead pinched and narrow lives. Open up a bit. Don’t take things on face value. There are worse things to teach kids. Just don’t get killed by that dragon.
There are no dragons of course, but the principle still applies – some things are seriously misunderstood, as are some people. These days that may be Mitt Romney. He may be one of those seriously misunderstood creatures. After all, the base of his party doesn’t understand him – he’s the former Massachusetts governor whose sole achievement there seems to have been a form of universal healthcare, provided by the private sector but underwritten by the state, with an individual mandate, requiring everyone to participate or pay a fine for choosing to be a freeloader on the system. It was the basis for the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, and it runs well and people there like it a lot. But he vows that if elected he will repeal the Affordable Care Act – every bit of it – and he tells the base of his party that he’s “severely conservative” – which must confuse them. He was once pro-choice but now he’s pro-life, and in the twenty long debates during the Republican primaries he let the others do the crazy stuff. Newt Gingrich called for the end of all child labor laws. Rick Perry listed the three departments of government he would immediately abolish, although he couldn’t quite remember one of them. Michele Bachmann, when asked the fair percentage of income people should pay to keep the government providing at least some essential services, said people should keep every penny they earn – until she quickly realized a government can’t run on wholly voluntary contributions and the occasional bake sale. Rick Santorum talked a lot about the evils of sex and what the government could do to make sure people weren’t enjoying it, or weren’t enjoying it for the wrong reason. Mitt just nodded. He didn’t say he disagreed with any of that, but he didn’t say he agreed either – he just kept saying he had been an astoundingly successful businessman, so obviously he knew how the economy worked and he could fix it in a jiffy – and he wasn’t Obama, who had done every single thing wrong. Everyone agreed that he wasn’t Obama, but other than that no one knew what to make of him. Hagrid might say Mitt Romney was seriously misunderstood, but that worked out just fine for Mitt. He outlasted the others as they each burnt out in their own odd outrage at this and that. Romney wasn’t that exciting and never won any primary or caucus convincingly, but he ended up with enough pledged delegates to be declared the party’s nominee when the Tampa convention rolls around. No one quite knew how he did it.
Those on the other side never understood him either. He couldn’t really be the walking embodiment of the arrogant One Percent, the folks who had ruined the economy and destroyed lives and laughed all the way to the bank – but he was. He was out there insisting that corporations were people too, and he did mention that he kind of liked firing people, and there was the matter of Bain Capital – his company that produced no goods or services but made hundreds of millions a pop buying solid but underperforming companies, loading them up with debt and extracting all value, before selling off what was left at a big profit. If there was nothing left they shut the company down and made a ton of money stiffing the creditors in bankruptcy court. He said he had been a job creator and that seemed mad, as did his tax plan, pretty much massive tax cuts for the very wealthy and higher taxes for the other ninety-five percent of us. And he loves the Paul Ryan budget – turning Medicare into a voucher program, with smaller and smaller vouchers until it disappears, and ending Social Security and so on. And the trip to London then Israel then Poland showed him to be a disaster on the international stage. There were few he didn’t offend with his suggestions of how smart people, like him, would do things, not the fools he saw around him everywhere. He kept talking about superior culture and the hand of providence. Some people just have it, and some don’t, and he has it – whatever it is. The man seems politically tone-deaf and perhaps morally reprehensible.
Or maybe he’s just misunderstood. That’s a possibility. Adam Gopnik, in a long item in the New Yorker, suggests that Romney’s Mormonism explains a lot about him:
Stereotypes and pigeonholes can, in a stable multiethnic society, act as sanctuaries as much as cells. In the heyday of urban ethnic immigration, even anti-Semites allowed that Jews were good at selling dry goods and producing movies, just as Irish Catholics were known to keep a good saloon and walk a decent beat. The ugliest of these pigeonholes suggests a comparative advantage, anyway: to be thought to tap-dance well implies that you can, at least, do that.
American Mormons, in this sense, seem to have been rather flatteringly typed. The Mormon executives and advisers around Howard Hughes were famous for their probity, their clean living, and their loyalty. As with the blond Scandinavian bodyguards who attended the Byzantine emperors, their uprightness was all the more starkly evidenced by the shiftiness of the guy they were protecting. The details of their religious views had nothing to do with the social role they played. The Osmond family was the Mormon family: too many kids and too many teeth, maybe, but always solid, always smiling, always temperate – no alcohol, no tobacco, not even caffeine.
Gopnik argues there’s more to it:
Romney is better understood as a late-twentieth-century American tycoon than as any kind of believer. Most of what is distinct about him seems specific to the rich managerial class of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and is best explained so – just as you would grasp more about Jack Kennedy from F. Scott Fitzgerald (an Irish and a Catholic ascending to Wasp manners) than from St. Augustine.
In another way, though, this is precisely where faith really does walk in, since commerce and belief seem complementary in Romney’s tradition. It’s just that this tradition is not merely Mormon. Joseph Smith’s strange faith has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce. It’s unfair to say, as some might, that Mitt Romney believes in nothing except his own ambition. He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.
That sums up Romney’s campaign entirely, and many who aren’t Mormons agree with the notion – rich people got rich by being good and they should be allowed to rule. That notion is more explicit in Mormonism, but it’s not that unusual. But that’s not what Matthew Sitman argues:
Gopnik believes that class, rather than faith, is at Mitt Romney’s psychological core. I’m not so sure. As Gopnik concedes, faith does impact how a person views wealth and success. Why shouldn’t we prioritize the specific religious motivation for that? For Romney, the theological thrust of Mormonism really could be behind his temporal pursuits. Accumulation – of land, wives, and wealth – stretches back to Mormonism’s beginnings; we don’t need to bring in the amorphous formulation of “American tycoon” to explain this.
There’s something else going on here:
More importantly, and despite the amount of press it has received, wealth is not the most interesting facet of Mitt Romney. Many wealthy men have run for the presidency. While Romney might be especially rich, and use that money in ways easy to poke fun at, it’s not surprising that a wealthy man is the Republican nominee.
Romney’s personality tics are far more arresting – particularly the massive inability to handle criticism and the shamelessness, opportunism, and ease with which he changed positions over the years. Those, and not his wealth, are what stand out. This pattern has all the marks of a disposition shaped by a religion that has been notably wary of criticism from its start, as well as an understanding of doctrine that, as Gopnik notes, has built within it the ability to shift stances in a moment’s notice. When the Mormon President, the church’s “prophet, seer, and revelator,” speaks, what Mormons are required to believe changes.
Mormonism is the Etch-a-Sketch American religion. Whatever you make of it, I think it tells us as much as we are likely to know about Romney’s inner life.
The man is seriously misunderstood. Yes, he changes his mind all the time, but the Mormons once held that polygamy was demanded by God, and then they didn’t, and they once held that blacks carried in mark of Cain, their back skin, and could never hold any position in the Mormon Church, and then they didn’t. Whatever works – the base creed was commerce. It is true that Joseph Smith had been put on trial for being a conman a few years before he found those golden tablets in Palmyra. All of life is a process of making successful adjustments.
That might not be so hard to understand, and now it’s time for another Romney adjustment. Priorities USA Action, the SuperPAC that supports Obama, but doesn’t coordinate with his campaign as that illegal, released a devastating political ad – it implies Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital is to blame for the death of a laid off steelworker’s wife.
Greg Sargent comments:
I think the ad goes too far, given the following factors: Joe Soptic’s wife died five years after his plant closed. She had her own health insurance – for a time – after he lost his job. It’s true that people without health insurance are less likely to survive cancer. But the circumstances of her illness are so unclear – even in Mr. Soptic’s own telling - that there’s simply no way to determine whether she would or wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t been fired.
The ad doesn’t quite say outright that Romney is to blame for her death. It’s meant to dramatize that decisions like the one made by Bain have long term consequences and devastate real people and communities. But the ad could have been a bit more specific in recounting what happened with her illness – and it does imply that she died partly because of Bain, which, again, is unsupportable at best.
But it’s still trouble and the Romney campaign responded to the ad in an odd way – Romney’s spokesperson of the day, Andrea Saul, offered an interesting idea – Soptic’s wife would have had health insurance if she had lived in Massachusetts and had been covered by Romneycare. Specifically she said this – “If people had been in Massachusetts, under Gov. Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care.”
Well, yes, and the right went nuts. See Mitt Romney Just Made Rush Limbaugh’s Head Explode and The Moment All the Doubts About Romney Resurfaced on the Right and Ann Coulter Melts Down on Hannity’s Show Over Romneycare and so on. They don’t understand this, or him.
They think this has given the Obama team a big opening to remake its case about Obamacare. And they’re right. The Romney campaign now seems to be claiming that government-established universal health care is the answer to what to do about people like Ms. Soptic who lack insurance. That’s Obama’s argument for Obamacare. The Romney campaign will argue that they only favor state-based insurance mandates to achieve universal coverage. That’s true. But this debate is occurring in the context of a presidential race. Something approaching universal health care is now the law of the land. But as president, Romney would take it away from people like the Soptic’s, without saying with any specificity what he would replace it with.
Sargent argues there’s even more to it:
The larger story here is this: Even if this ad makes unsupportable charges – and even if you think there’s nothing objectionable about Bain’s conduct – the ad dramatizes a larger story about what has happened to the middle class in this country. There is a straightforward difference of opinion between the two candidates over how to respond to this – over the degree to which the federal government should intervene to protect people like Ms. Soptic. Obama believes in aggressive federal action to cushion the blow of market outcomes like the one that hit families like the Soptics with such force. Romney – even though his campaign has now said universal health care is the right answer in cases like hers – is promising to roll back government protections for families like theirs.
Whatever you think of the ad, that’s the more important larger argument to be having here – and it has been clarified this week.
Paul Krugman put it this way a few weeks before this all blew up:
In a better America, Mitt Romney would be running for president on the strength of his major achievement as governor of Massachusetts: a health reform that was identical in all important respects to the health reform enacted by President Obama. By the way, the Massachusetts reform is working pretty well and has overwhelming popular support.
In reality, however, Mr. Romney is doing no such thing, bitterly denouncing the Supreme Court for upholding the constitutionality of his own health care plan. His case for becoming president relies, instead, on his claim that, having been a successful businessman, he knows how to create jobs.
This, in turn, means that however much the Romney campaign may wish otherwise, the nature of that business career is fair game. How did Mr. Romney make all that money? Was it in ways suggesting that what was good for Bain Capital, the private equity firm that made him rich, would also be good for America?
The truth is that even if Mr. Romney had been a classic captain of industry, a present-day Andrew Carnegie, his career wouldn’t have prepared him to manage the economy. A country is not a company (despite globalization, America still sells 86 percent of what it makes to itself), and the tools of macroeconomic policy – interest rates, tax rates, spending programs – have no counterparts on a corporate organization chart. Did I mention that Herbert Hoover actually was a great businessman in the classic mold?
In any case, however, Mr. Romney wasn’t that kind of businessman. Bain didn’t build businesses; it bought and sold them. Sometimes its takeovers led to new hiring; often they led to layoffs, wage cuts and lost benefits. On some occasions, Bain made a profit even as its takeover target was driven out of business.
Sometimes the dragon isn’t a seriously misunderstood creature. People die, although Jonathan Cohn argues not all on Romney’s side are fire-breathing dragons:
President Obama’s position is that the federal government has an obligation to make sure every American has health insurance, regardless of age, pre-existing condition, or employment status. That’s why he signed the Affordable Care Act, which puts in place a coverage system that will go a long way towards accomplishing that goal. Romney, of course, wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He also wants to change Medicare and Medicaid so that they provide less financial protection, while introducing tax changes that would likely weaken employer-sponsored insurance.
Does this mean Romney “doesn’t care,” as Soptic suggests? His campaign platform alone doesn’t tell us that. There are honest, truly compassionate conservatives out there who take similar positions, not out of indifference but out of considered policy judgment. But those conservatives are the ones who offer detailed alternatives that might – according to credible, non-partisan health care experts – meaningfully increase health care access. They are also the ones who indicate, via policy substance and rhetoric, that improving access to health care should be a governing priority. Romney has done none of these things.
Yes, conservatives too are seriously misunderstood creatures, even if Time’s Michael Crowley offers this:
Narrowly judged, the ad is scurrilous. It implies that a Romney-led takeover of GST Steel Company in Missouri by Bain Capital left a GST worker, Joe Soptic, and his wife, Ilyana, without health insurance; that she delayed seeing a doctor for cost reasons; and that she received a fatally late diagnosis as a result. But a CNN fact-check severely undermines this narrative. Leave aside the fact that Mitt Romney had left Bain to manage the Salt Lake City Olympics when, in 2001, Bain shuttered GST. The more relevant fact, not mentioned by the ad, is that the man’s wife had her own health insurance, lost it when she was injured at her job, and did not fall ill until several years later. The distance between Romney and this woman’s tragic death is substantial, and even if you want to argue the causal culpability of Romney and Bain, the ad deceitfully condenses the story.
But the more accurate version of this heartbreaking story is still worth telling. Indeed it may be the best illustration this campaign has offered of how politics affects the lives of ordinary people. America’s employer-based health insurance system–in which a layoff plus an illness can equal financial ruin or death – is a national embarrassment.
That may broaden things a bit too much. All the Romney folks wanted to do was blunt the impact of this ad, with a brief comment. It was all tactics, not grand strategy – it was damage control. But as Kevin Drum notes, not very effective damage control:
Say what? Their response is, basically, that shit happens, but Soptic and his wife would have been okay if only Missouri had offered universal healthcare to its residents? This from a guy who’s all but renounced the universal healthcare he introduced in Massachusetts because the Tea Party hates it? I feel like I’ve suddenly been transported into some alternate universe where Mitt Romney thinks every state should offer subsidized healthcare to everyone.
Drum may be trying too hard to understand. Mitt Romney cannot be understood. J. K. Rowling may have been trying to get her readers to see that sometimes you have to dig deeper and see what’s really there, but sometimes, as is the case here, what you see cannot be understood. Sometimes it’s just a damned dragon.