There are two principal sets of goals for management consultants. The first is to convince clients that you, the consultant, have performed an exhaustive analysis of their situation, boiled down the results into easy-to-grasp bullet points, and designed an actionable path forward. The second is to ensure that those recommendations are as broad as possible in order to avoid being blamed for negative results while steering absolutely clear of telling clients anything they really don’t want to hear.
So it will come as no surprise to anyone reading “Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth” that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential hopeful, spent much of his career running an offshoot of Bain & Company, a highly successful global management consulting firm.
Bain pitches its value to businesses on the front page of its website under the headline “Shared Ambition, True Results” with a sort of consultant-jargon Zen koan: “We find value across boundaries, develop insights they act on, and energize their teams to sustain success.” Despite being more than 150 pages long, Romney’s economic plan offers roughly the same level of confident, content-free froth.
Like so many consultant’s reports, Romney’s document is dull with meeting-room melodrama. “President Obama assumed office at a moment of crisis,” it starts. And of course, there were two choices: on the one hand, “to put faith in American workers and businesses,” on the other, “to put faith in government.” Which one did Obama choose? The suspense is killing me.
You can guess where it goes from there. At the end of the first section, Romney’s assessment of Obama’s term so far is revealed. “Taken cumulatively, the programs in Barack Obama’s agenda in his first three years in office have set back the American economy and contributed significantly to the high levels of unemployment we are now enduring.” Romney, like so many consultants, wants his audience to think he is establishing a narrative. Instead, he is merely rehearsing the one they already believed.
Oh sure, Romney’s “plan” offers two full pages of discussion about why the United States needs to transition to a “territorial” tax system, and scatters tasteful graphs across its bullet-pointed pages. If you make it through the entire document, you’ll even run across a handful of real, if mostly underdeveloped, policy proposals: establishing a hard cap for regulatory costs, lowering the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, eliminating the estate tax, repeal ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulation bill, In the course of 150 pages, it’s hard for even a master consultant like Romney to avoid proposing anything at all.
But even the proposals Romney does offer tend to be carefully couched in the language of possibility. “A robust investment tax credit, extending the write-off for capital expenditures for an additional year, and a lower payroll tax could each have a positive effect if properly structured.” Could! Perhaps! Isn’t that interesting?
On Medicare reform, the plan nods toward the premium support plan put forth by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, “makes important strides in the right direction by keeping the system solvent and introducing market-based dynamics.” Does Romney support Ryan’s plan, or its basic framework? Not...exactly. “As president, Romney’s own plan”—wasn’t this supposed to be Romney’s plan?—“will differ, but it will share those objectives.” The same. But different.
Indeed, Romney’s report appears designed to give the impression of prescriptive policy detail while providing as little of it possible—focusing more on describing what America’s situation is—or at least what Romney thinks Republican voters think America’s situation is—than on what it should be, and how he proposes to fix its problems.
So it’s sufficiently thorough in its background analysis, yet aspirationally vague when it comes to proposing action items.
Meanwhile, it fully avoids telling Republicans anything they don’t want to hear. The word Medicare, for example, appears just three times: Once in the context of his non-support for Rep. Ryan’s overhaul, once to note that ObamaCare “slashed $500 billion from Medicare,” and one more time to declare that “we must keep the promises made to our current retirees: their Social Security and Medicare benefits should not be affected.”
Like Medicare? Hate Medicare? Want to see it reformed, propped up, or cut back? Irked by ObamaCare's cuts to the program? Romney's plan recognizes all possible Republican viewpoints, and commits to none of them.
It’s as if Romney and his team took notice of the polls showing Obama losing to a generic Republican—and then made it his mission to become exactly that candidate. If not for the spectre of RomneyCare, Romney might have succeeded in personifying the distilled essence of vaguely Reaganesque vanilla Republicanism.
Of course, as part of the act, Romney is required to insist otherwise. The report’s third section, “Mitt Romney’s Plan,” begins by declaring that “Mitt Romney is a leader of a very different kind.” Not just different. Very different. The important thing, though, is that he has to tell you. Because otherwise you wouldn’t know.