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The Week in Greed #16: How to Take a Salesman to the Woodshed

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In 2004, John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was the democratic nominee for President, running against George W. Bush, who avoided serving in Vietnam by securing a place in the Texas National Guard. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, had secured five deferments to avoid military service.

Issues of military experience mattered, because Bush had launched two wars in the wake of 9/11, neither of which was going well. The central historical curiosity of that election is how Kerry’s service—he won a silver star, a bronze star, and three purple hearts—became a liability.

Kerry lost the election, if barely, for one simple reason: because he never turned to Bush during any of their three debates, looked him in the eye, and said, “With all due respect, Mr. President, you wouldn’t be so reckless about sending our young men into battle if you’d ever been under enemy fire yourself. But you haven’t been, sir. While I was in the Mekong Delta getting shot at and wounded, you were in Alabama working on a political campaign for one of your father’s pals. That’s not a political attack, Mr. President. It’s history.”

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If Barack Obama loses his re-election bid in a few weeks it will be because he failed to confront Mitt Romney in the same manner, face to face, about his relentless and brazen lies to the American people.

Men born of wealth—like Bush and Romney—feel entitled to bullying the truth, and their opponents. It’s how they their mask their insecurity, and conceal their panic. Obama, a bi-racial kid raised without money, got ahead by avoiding conflict. In most contexts, this would be an attribute. But modern presidential campaigns are filtered by pundits, and decided by voters, who think very little about policy. They go with their gut. They go with the guy who seems like a winner, the guy who has made an ally of his aggression.

Because tomorrow’s debate is town-hall style, Obama will have to empathize with those in the audience, and attend to their questions. But voters at home, the ones still open to voting for him, need Obama to take the fight to Romney, to speak with urgency and moral force. He needs to have lines of attack prepared for particular topics, and those attacks need to tell a larger story.

The story is simple—Mitt Romney is a salesman. The grin, the swell suit, the sunny promises of moderation are a pitch intended to hide what you’re really buying: a shameless oligarch.

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The overarching message:

Governor Romney has been running for office for twenty years now, and the only core position he holds is that he deserves to be President. Everything else depends on who he’s talking to. When he’s talking to rich fundraisers behind closed doors, and he thinks nobody else is listening, he says 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government and can’t take responsibility for their lives. When he gets caught, he says, “Oh gosh, I didn’t mean that.” Now he’s for the middle class. During the Republican primary, Governor Romney promised to cut taxes for the one percent. In Denver, he swore up and down he wouldn’t do that. He used to be a moderate conservative. Then he was a severe conservative. Used to be pro-choice, now he’s pro-life. Used to be for his own health care plan, now he’s against it. Used to be against regulation, now he’s for it. Just shake the etch-a-sketch and presto chango: a new Mitt Romney. When reporters point out his ads are full of lies, his staff says—this is an actual quote—“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

That’s not leadership, Governor Romney. It’s salesmanship.

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On Romney’s tax plan:

Governor Romney is constantly reminding us that there are six studies that prove his plan to cut $5 trillion in taxes—cuts skewed toward the wealthy—won’t raise the deficit. Six studies. Sounds pretty impressive, right? Until you read the fine print. Those studies are blogs and editorials written by conservatives. That’s how he defines a “study.” By those standards, I guess Governor Romney himself is the author of a rather famous study, the one entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” That’s the study about how we should have just let our auto industry fail. The only legitimate study of his tax plan revealed what common sense should tell you: if you give massive tax cuts to rich folks, middle-class families are going to have to pay it. That’s how it always is with Governor Romney. The sales pitch sounds great – until you look at the fine print.

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On health care:

Governor Romney wants to turn Medicare, one of the most successful programs in our history, into a voucher program. Period. He likes to promise seniors he won’t touch their benefits. But that’s only because his voucher system doesn’t kick in for a few years. Like any good salesman, he’s put his political liability on layaway. But in the mean time he’s going to gut Medicaid programs for seniors and sick children. He says his plan will allow folks with pre-existing conditions to get insurance. It won’t. Five minutes after our last debate ended, his staff had to admit that was a lie. He says he’ll repeal Obamacare and let states come up with their health care laws. But that’s impossible—because the federal government actually subsidized most of his state’s health care plan. Those are the facts. Governor Romney knows those are the facts. His only hope is that voters won’t read the fine print on his health care plans, because if they do, it will make them sick.

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On foreign policy:

For the last couple of weeks, Governor Romney has been running around shooting off his mouth on foreign policy—which is odd, given that he has no foreign policy experience. Actually, check that. He did visit England and manage to insult our closest ally. Then he tried to score cheap political points while our citizens were under attack in Libya, and he’s still trying to exploit that tragedy for political gain. Americans have seen this kind of bluster before. It’s what got us into two wars. My foreign policy isn’t about bluster. It’s about results. Under my watch, we’ve ended the war in Iraq, we’re winding down in Afghanistan, and we’ve decimated Al Qeada. Like President Bush, Governor Romney didn’t believe bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice was a high priority. I did.

Being Commander-in-Chief isn’t like being a candidate, Governor. You can’t just sit in a comfy armchair trying to win the next news cycle. You have to sit in the Oval Office and make the tough calls. Tough talk isn’t a doctrine. It’s another form of salesmanship.

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On character:

Governor Romney has been running for president for years now and he’s made lots of promises: to cut taxes and reduce the debt and save Medicare and create twelve million jobs. After all this time, he can’t even tell you what’s in his tax plan. These aren’t serious proposals. They’re sales pitches.

Here’s what we do know about Governor Romney: he was born into wealth and made millions in private equity. His company closed down plants in America and shipped jobs overseas. He believes corporations are people. He makes more than $20 million per year on investments and pays a lower tax rate than an occupational therapist. He has a Swiss bank account and a tax shelter in the Cayman Islands. Despite being the richest citizen ever to run for President, he refuses to release more than two years of his tax returns, though his own father set the precedent as a candidate of releasing a dozen returns.

Governor Romney is a good businessman. He knows how to close a deal. But America isn’t a business. The job of the President isn’t to maximize profits for the folks at the top. It’s to maximize opportunity for all our citizens. The Governor is eager to talk about how much he cares for the middle class, because he thinks this will get him elected. But look at how he’s spent his life. Those are his values. Boil away the sales pitches and he’s for a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy.

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The riffs above amount to less than ten minutes of talking. Obama will still have time to set out his own agenda, and say “um” a lot. But what’s precious in these debates—what turned the race against him last time—is the chance to project strength. It’s incredibly sad that such an attitude should have to prevail in a mature democracy. It speaks to the moral poverty of our Fourth Estate, and our electorate. But that’s where we are.

If Obama wants another four years, he has to find a way to fight against his instincts, and take a salesman out to the woodshed.


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →