But there is another argument that Romney might make, and Salam makes it. It goes like this: The revolution in corporate management wrought by private equity was far-reaching, but some sectors—particularly sectors that are highly regulated, or where the government itself provides services, education and healthcare foremost among them—resisted it. As a result, innovation languishes, and the entire economy suffers. Writes Salam: “What these sectors need, Romney should argue, is the same data-driven transformation that saved America’s industrial economy.” And crucially, according to this argument, there’s only one path to achieve this transformation, and only one candidate who understands that. Obama may know that the “eds and meds” sector needs higher productivity and greater innovation—but only Romney grasps that the way to get there is through creative destruction.
This argument, of course, is open to challenge. And if Romney were to make it, he would no doubt be challenged: about whether the productivity-boosting account of private equity is really the most accurate one; about whether the “bigger cake less equally split,” as one of Wallace-Wells’s sources describes a Bain-style economy, represents progress; and most of all, about whether there are other, more appealing paths to growth. Those could be real, substantive debates—maybe even one of the fabled “national conversations” about our economic values, priorities, and realities.
So far, though, Romney hasn’t consistently made this case, or any case that’s coherently connected to his tenure at Bain. He probably does come closest in his positions on education and health care, which emphasize competition and innovation, and move in the direction of disrupting existing systems. But even here, Romney doesn’t approach the point that is at the core of Salam’s essay: “the road to job creation runs through job destruction.”
Nor is creative destruction at the center of Romney’s stump speeches or his messaging machine. He assails regulations that affect existing businesses—not the ones that might restrict entrepreneurship. He attacks Obama with appeals to the sympathies and resentments of incumbent business owners—the very people, his defenders tell us, whom Romney spent years making life difficult for. He offers a message and an agenda that valorizes business as a class, not one that’s rooted in the purported virtues of his own career. That may prove to be enough to win, but it’s not enough to lead a debate about what the Romney economy might really look like.
So what can the media do? Begin by noticing this disconnect, and explaining it to readers and viewers—and getting the Bain debate out of the dead ends it’s been stuck in so far.
And then, ask at every opportunity: “Governor, help me understand: What, exactly, what about your business career has prepared you to be president?” Admittedly, there aren’t many chances to do this. But Romney will be in California today. It’s not too soon to start.