Mitt Romney's greatest challenge is Mitt Romney

Jan 13 2012 - 5:17pm

The term "capitalism with a human face" has been commonly used for more than a decade and a half, inspired in part by a book of that title by Samuel Brittan, influential journalist of the London Financial Times.

Capitalism, Brittan wrote, must marry compassion and care for those in need with the efficiencies of competition to succeed over the long term. His book appeared in 1995, in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher's lengthy, tough-minded and at times harsh tenure as Britain's prime minister.The point is important for Republican Mitt Romney. Despite twin victories in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the presidential contender remains plagued by an image of corporate elitism. Republican rivals now allege ruthless job cutting by Bain Capital, the highly successful investment firm Romney led before entering politics.

Romney at times reinforces the stereotype of privileged elitism and insensitivity, including his infamous offer of a $10,000 bet to Rick Perry and casual comment right before the New Hampshire voting that he likes to be able to fire people.

The front-runner must counterattack effectively in order to go the distance, not only during the primaries but also in a general election campaign against President Barack Obama. Fortunately for moneyed Mitt, he need look no further than Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan delivered a major address on international relations at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, just before the important Illinois primary. Republican contender John Connally had just dropped out, after spending many millions of dollars but securing a grand total of only one delegate.

Connally, however, was supported by an extraordinary array of corporate executives, who assembled in legions behind him. After this Pied Piper of the pinstriped suit set dropped out, council staff members made a major effort to organize a reception to bring Reagan together with business people.

The Reagan campaign turned the idea down flat -- no chance, no way, absolutely not possible. A small informal lunch with Reagan just before the Chicago speech provided an opportunity to ask him about that corporate reception idea. The candidate revealed he, not his staff, had vetoed the request.

With clarity and patience, Reagan explained if you want to be president of the United States, you have to persuade working people, who are the vast majority of the electorate, that you understand their lives and their problems. This is particularly important for a Republican, he added, because many regard that party as favoring the rich.

If, like Connally, you gravitate to corporate boardrooms, country clubs and private jets, Reagan observed, you are bound to lose. Besides, he added, he did not have to court business leaders because they were seeking him out as his winner's scent grew.

Reagan's extraordinary electoral success was in part a reflection of attracting enormous support from working people who had previously generally voted for Democrats. Up close, he was authentic and engaging in a way that contrasts with many prominent personalities.

Romney's father, George, combined business and political success as chief executive of American Motors and then governor of Michigan. His down-to-earth style was similar to Reagan's.

Front-runner Mitt Romney should read the book by Brittan of Britain, or at least get a staff summary, while working harder to emulate Reagan -- and his own dad.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of "After the Cold War" (NYU Press). He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

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