Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Thick As a Brick

Cory Booker, a leading politician in New Jersey, gave the best possible argument for Mitt Romney as a presidential campaign surrogate.  He went on "Meet The Press" this past Sunday to bash President Obama's aggressive focus on Romney's career at Bain Capital and its liquidation of various companies, and how Bain even made money when these companies went broke.  Booker said that private equity is a vital source of capital for economic expansion, and he complained that it's "nauseating" and counterproductive to make an issue out of it to gain votes.  Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, is an Obama supporter.
I have believed that, if Obama wins re-election, we'll look back and say that the turnaround began with Joe Biden's "Meet The Press" appearance, in which he advocated for gay marriage.  If Obama loses, we'll look back and point to this "Meet The Press" appearance by Booker as the moment the tide turned.  Republicans are already gleefully using Booker's words against the President in ads, and they plan to do so for the next five and a half months.  The White House is looking ever so slightly more clueless about the economy now.  Chris Matthews says this could cripple the President's chances in November, and it will . . . if Matthews doesn't shut up about it!  
Of course, President Obama isn't badmouthing private equity firms. He isn't even badmouthing Bain Capital; he's acknowledged that venture capitalists can do good.  He's only badmouthing one venture capitalist - the one who wants his job.  And the President, having to address this campaign train wreck caused by the mayor of Brick City, says he will keep focusing on Romney's career at Bain Capital because Romney himself is touting his record at that firm, rather than his four-year stint as governor of Massachusetts, as his main qualification to be President.  Obama wants to talk about the proper role of private equity investments in the economy, and - more importantly - he wants to point out that a President should be concerned about how everyone in America fares, as opposed to a few rich blokes making profits like Bain is.
Sounds fair enough.  If Romney is running on his business experience, then it should be given more scrutiny . . . and its relevance in relation to the common good should also be questioned.  Obama actually seemed to welcome Booker's comments, suggesting that they add content and context to a much-needed debate.  "This is not a distraction," Obama said of Booker's remarks.
Booker's remarks are a distraction from another record - his own.  Booker presides over New Jersey's largest city, and it also remains one of the poorest and most crime-infested cities in the nation.  You can't read a copy of the Newark Star-Ledger without seeing at least one crime-related story about the city, and for all of the wonderful stories about Newark and how the business district is more vibrant, or how a couple of neighborhoods here and there have improved, the city as a whole is still a dead zone.  In that respect it isn't that different from most other American cities.  But if private equity is as great as Booker says it is, how come it hasn't created any good jobs for Newarkers?   Booker is the first mayor of Newark born after the 1967 riot that decimated the city, but it still looks like a city that had a major disturbance yesterday.  The past 45 years have been about middle-class families leaving Newark, poor people leaving once they reach the middle class and can afford to leave (not too many examples of that, of course), a declining tax base, a deteriorating school system, and a rising crime rate.  
Granted, most of these problems were well-entrenched by the time Booker became mayor in 2006, and federal policies that shortchange cities for the benefit of rural and suburban areas go back even farther than 1967.  But Booker doesn't seem to appreciate how businessmen of Romney's ilk haven't done much good for cities like Newark.  Manufacturing there has been steadily declining since 1967 - not as rapidly as in Detroit, which relied too long on just the automotive industry, while Newark's industrial base was more diverse - but it's still been declining.  Private equity firms don't exist to turn around struggling communities - they exist to turn around struggling businesses, and they take less of a risk than the workers if the businesses fail. And my litany of urban woes afflicting Newark only underscores how firms like Bain Capital can't revive the economies of whole communities even if they wanted to.  Public investment, not just private investment, is also necessary to bring a city or town back to life.  Obama understands that; he's touted spending on education and infrastructure.  Romney doesn't want to acknowledge such a thing.
So why did Booker say what he said?  Because he obviously wants to be the chief executive of something more than a city, and he likely doesn't want to offend his potential backers.  In an effort at damage control, he tried to walk back his comments twice - once in an online video, again last night on Rachel Maddow's show - and he lamented that his overall point about private equity was misrepresented by the Republicans.
One leading elected chief executive saw his political career irrevocably ruined this week.  Now it remains to be seen which one - Obama or Booker.     

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