Mitt Romney’s Ethical Morass

            Mitt Romney has made two significant decisions in recent days that have ethical portent and suggest his vision of America and of democratic governance. First, the likely GOP nominee has taken to the hustings to argue that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and thereby President Barack Obama, are “gutting” the nation’s work requirements for welfare recipients by granting governors more flexibility in addressing the governing law’s mandates. The problem is the claim is completely without basis. The New York Times titled a lead editorial on August 8, “Mr. Romney Hits Bottom on Welfare,” so to state, and PolitiFact, the nonpartisan organization that checks the accuracy of campaign claims, labeled this one “Pants on Fire,” its lowest rating for veracity. As Governor of Massachusetts Romney had personally requested just such flexibility and several GOP state chief executives had sought it from the current administration as well. So, there is no question that the candidate did not understand what he was doing or saying. Rather, he appears to have been content ethically to mislead deliberately on this issue and repeatedly, even when called on it. The questions are, what does this say about Romney and why might he engage in such insincere, if presumably, from his point-of-view, meretricious, behavior?

            Unfortunately, the most likely explanations do not help the former governor out of his self-created ethical mess. Robert Reich has argued Romney adopted this stance to mobilize the most radical conservatives in his party, on the view that in a close election, the side that brings out more of its most zealous partisans is likely to prevail. Other analysts see an ugly cynicism at work (this view is actually consonant with Reich’s). A majority of Americans identify welfare (unfairly as it happens) with African-Americans and so, in this view, this claim is aimed at attracting those voters who still wish to believe in Ronald Reagan’s myth of the “Ghetto Queen” who can lie around all day eating bon-bons because welfare benefits allow her not to work. This sort of argument is a subtle way to organize individuals around racial claims and to scapegoat not only minorities, but also the poor, in so doing. The truth is much more complex, but it is more difficult to mobilize voters around subtleties and easier to set up a false scapegoat and implicitly declare self-righteously that this or that group, especially a population already subject to discrimination by many, is “taking advantage” of taxpayers and must be stopped. This sort of narrative may be appealing to some in the targeted groups of voters, but it is surely not only ugly in what it says about the candidate’s willingness to exploit divisions for personal gain, but also unethical nonsense in the present case.

            A broader explanation for this sort of behavior, whether practiced by Romney or others (i.e., George H.W. Bush and the infamous Willie Horton ad, George W. Bush’s decision to countenance the outrageous “Swiftboating” of Senator John Kerry’s war record, etc.) is that they can do it. There are now relatively few regulations on campaign expenditures or advertising and most media will treat election speech claims, even wild ones, as “he said” she said” propositions in airing and reporting them. Moreover, all that matters to campaign consultants is that they win, so those professionals implicitly count on the candidate to make such ethical choices as may be necessary. They care as a group only about “what works” to galvanize voters. So, when candidates become so ambitious themselves that they are willing to voice outright falsehoods and to repudiate their own records, there is little (and few individuals on their staffs) that will stand in the way of their electing to do so if it appears to be “good politics,” however understood. While no one can say which, or what combination of these factors led Romney to his lamentable position, the plain fact is the candidate pressed this ugly and patently untrue claim about the welfare program and he did so vigorously and repeatedly. It is also clear that the aim of that assertion was to stereotype the poor, whom it was meant not only to typecast, but also implicitly to label as venal or worse.

            The second choice Romney has made in recent days freighted with ethical implications is his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. As many have remarked, of all of the individuals he might have chosen, Romney picked the most ideologically radical and the one most devoted to a vision of America as a new utopia of Social Darwinism. The particulars of Ryan’s proposed budget for America are well known. It offers draconian cuts in programs for the poor, for seniors, for the disabled and for infrastructure investment even as it provides additional large tax reductions for the nation’s most wealthy citizens and for corporations. It also protects defense contractors, some of the nation’s largest firms. Few doubt Ryan’s proposed expenditure blueprint will deepen inequality and ensure that the poor are, in the congressman’s chilling phrase, “not dependent,” even as it virtually ensures their continued immiseration and ill health.

            This ethical vision is surely in keeping with the celebration of individual selfishness offered by Ryan’s favorite novelist and thinker, Ayn Rand as well as, most famously perhaps, of Ebenezer Scrooge, prior to his transformation. Whatever else it may be, this is not a vision for democratic governance. Instead, it calls for deepening inequality, it is not grounded in any conception of human dignity except for a valorization of wealth as an indicator of deserving status and it fails even to provide for negative freedom by ensuring that corporations and the wealthy are guaranteed a privileged standing as they exercise their “freedom to choose” relative to all other groups. In short, it is a vision that is neither democratic nor free in any broadly accepted understanding of either term. It only remains to ask once again why Romney has adopted these recent stances and, as noted above, his reasons are opaque. That said, there can be no mistaking their ethical indefensibility and repugnancy, whatever their latent rationale.