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Michael Takiff Headshot

Mitt Romney, Bain Capital, and Tony Soprano

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A quiz:

Mitt Romney likes the idea of moving to Florida because:

a) The palm trees are the right height
b) He's pals with the owner of the Dolphins
c) With low labor costs, he could hire more employees, then fire them
d) He could pay even less in taxes
e) He loves the Early Bird Special.

If you answered d, you win an all-expense-paid tour of Bain Capital's executive washroom. (Be sure to bring a few quarters -- you will be charged for soap.)

Such patriotism. Such devotion to the welfare of others. Doesn't it make you weak in the knees?

* * *

I haven't rubbed elbows with many fabulously wealthy people, but I've been around them enough to know that among some of them a common topic of conversation is where and how to reduce one's tax bill. Romney is so accustomed to shooting the breeze with his fellow gazillionaires that these clueless-rich-guy comments keep spilling out of him: the bet for ten thousand dollars, the "not much money" from speaking fees (only $374,000), enjoying firing people, being "not very concerned" about the poor, the two Cadillacs, the pink slip he once feared, being unemployed, the friends who own NASCAR teams, the friends who own football teams, advising students, "Borrow money if you have to from your parents. Start a business." (My favorite part of that one is "if you have to." Damn it, just swallow your pride and dip into Mom and Dad's cash pile. . . . What? Your Mom and Dad don't have a cash pile?)

Wealth is the air Mitt Romney breathes. He's simply incapable of understanding that people without three homes, two Caddies, and a wife who blows a grand on a t-shirt might hear his comments and think, What's wrong with this guy?

Since Romney's so busy praising Bill Clinton these days (and misrepresenting Clinton's record), let's take note of the Big Dog's greatest political asset: his empathy. The words "I feel your pain" became an instant punchline as soon as Bill Clinton uttered them in 1992, but the man's gift for convincing ordinary people he cares about them was the prime element in his political success. Barack Obama may lack Clinton's instinctive talent for sweaty public pain-feeling, but compared to Romney he's a big warm fuzzy bear.

Clinton was able to project empathy because he felt it; this piece of his persona was rooted as much in his genuine interest in people, from all walks of life, as it was in political calculation. As comical as Romney's Richie Rich act is, it carries a darker message about the man: He can't project empathy because he's incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of anyone not like himself.

* * *

There's a weird hollowness to Mitt Romney. What does he believe? What is his moral core, his inner integrity?

Okay, if we take him at his word, he's been faithful to his wife for forty years (a contrast to the Ladies Man from Hope), and we should admire him for that. But he's been as happy to divorce a political principle when it became inconvenient as Newt Gingrich has been to ditch last year's trophy wife when a newer, trophier one came on the market.

Was the previous Romney -- moderate, pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, pro-universal healthcare -- the real one? Or is the current version -- severely conservative, abortion-outlawing, gay-marriage-banning, Obamacare-repealing -- the one and true man? Is either? Is there any way to tell?

We know he believes in one thing: making money. We also know that he made tons of it -- not all his fortune, but not a trivial portion of it, either -- by immoral means. More than once Bain bought a company then loaded it with debt (for some reason the process is called "leveraging," not "malfeasance"), then extracted millions in dividends and management fees through complex schemes ("financial engineering," not "theft"), thus bleeding the company white ("taking money out," not "committing rape") to enrich Romney and his partners ("private equity investors," not "pirates") while the company went belly-up ("became insolvent," not "succumbed to murder").

Somewhere, human beings were hurt by these financial maneuverings. But the point of the exercise wasn't to avoid doing harm to middle-class families, it was to make money, a lot of it. These people found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time; sorry, that's capitalism. Call their busted lives collateral damage.

Remember the Sopranos plotline in which a Mafia hanger-on, the owner of a sporting-goods store, gets in over his head at a card game (to the tune of forty-five "boxes of ziti")? Tony & Co. take over his store, ordering a mountain of merchandise from suppliers but never paying for it. The gangsters fence dozens of pairs of Air Jordans, the store owner packs up his car and heads west, his money gone, his family destroyed. Why do we call Tony Soprano a sociopath and Mitt Romney a success? Because Romney operated on a much larger scale? Because his suits were less flashy? Because his weapon, money, was more powerful than Tony's, muscle?

And it's laughable to say that Romney "created jobs" with some investments even if he detonated them with others. It's shameless to assert, as Romney did the other day, that the companies that disappeared during or after ownership by Bain were exceptions to the firm's larger record. There's a winning campaign slogan: "Mitt Romney: Most of the Time Not an Avaricious Bastard."

Come to think of it, it is a great slogan. Barack, Axe, Plouffe, remember, you heard it here first.

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