Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Romney Encapsulates His Problems

In his announcement venue and speech.

Leaving aside the historically interesting but currently morally irrelevant point that Henry Ford embodied some of the more conventional prejudices of early 20th century America's Main Street business community about Jews (as though there were any location on the planet untouched by some human sin), the real problem with Romney's announcement is that he's looking backward for inspiration, but choosing a venue which emphasises the things about the past which bears least resemblance to our current challenges--the technology of the past, and the organisations which were built to exploit that technology, rather than focusing on the timeless lessons of human nature to be extracted from history as more seasoned campaign stagers do--for instance the Obama Camp's official launch in Springfield, IL, under the omnipresent shadow of Abraham Lincoln.

While Romney has far more personal connection both to the auto industry and Michigan manufacturing in general than Obama does to Springfield, the choice of the Ford Museum does not provide any conceptual momentum to any of Romney's campaign themes. Ostensibly, the Romney campaign ties Romney's commitment to "innovation and transformation" to the venue of Dearborn, but the predominant image in the average American's mind of the auto industry today is 180 degrees away from those qualities. The routinely staggering losses at the U.S. auto manufacturers coupled with their stylistic timidity no longer evoke the enthusiasm of the hot-rodding days of the Baby Boomers' heyday. The GTO, Charger and Mustang of the 1960's have not been transcended by new designs, rather they have been resurrected as nostalgia pieces, selling a halcyon past redesigned as sedans (with the Mustang's honorable exception); adolescent boys spend their free time absorbed by electronic devices today rather than rebuilding manual transmissions or installing aftermarket superchargers.

More than just image is at stake here, though. The industrial management model embraced by the Big Three since the 1920's is exhausted, and the bill for the crony capitalism embodied by the incestuous dealings between the auto companies, the UAW and Michigan politicians of both parties, has now come due in full with the imminent retirement of the Baby Boomers who compose the overwhelming majority of the Big Three's employees. The most salient tie which exists today between the Romney camp and Detroit is the urgent need for the Big Three to get out from under their overly-generous retiree health care obligations, and Romney's touting of his management expertise in implementing the massive welfare-state universal health insurance entitlement in Massachusetts. If this is the predominant image Romney wants us to take away at the start of his campaign, every fiscal conservative in the party needs to hold tight to his wallet.

Linking one's stated campaign themes of innovation and transformation to the current state of affairs in Detroit is a staging challenge doomed to failure. Does the Romney campaign really want to hitch Romney's perceived technocratic competence to the flailings of the industry in which losing less than $8 billion a year is perceived as accomplishment?

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