Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop at Holland State Park on Tuesday, June 19, 2012, in Holland, Michigan. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
To look at Mitt Romney—the boxy power suits, the body toned by jogging—he is the financial industry personified. To listen to him, whether casually offering a $10,000 bet or flatly declaring, “corporations are people,” is to hear the unrestrained id of Wall Street. Remarkably, in the middle of a sluggish economy brought about by the irresponsibility of bankers gambling with other people’s money, Romney thinks this is his greatest asset.
Romney likes to contrast his own résumé with President Obama’s by saying, “To create jobs, it helps to have had one.” He means that a job is not really a job unless it is in the for-profit sector. Likewise, Romney asserts, “I’m a guy who has lived in the world of business. [If] you don’t balance your budget in business you go out of business. So I’ve lived balancing budgets.”
Even some of his erstwhile rivals say Romney’s experience in consulting and private equity qualifies him to be president. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who harshly criticized Romney’s record when running against him in 2008, recently offered this endorsement of Romney on CNN: “Governor Romney has almost a perfect record for a person to be running right now, experience in government, experience in business, understands the economy.”
It is notable that in a country that idolizes successful business executives and fetishizes great wealth, there have been so few presidents from a business background. That’s because Romney’s pitch is actually quite unusual in American history and it grows out of the recent evolution of the modern GOP.
Back in the Gilded Age the great titans of industry were generally averse to running for office. The massive inequality of the era created resentment, and being fabulously wealthy was seen as a liability rather than an asset in a popular election. “It was something to run away from,” says David Nasaw, a history professor at CUNY and author of biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst. The robber barons generally controlled public policy by pulling strings from behind the scenes, serving as patrons and advisors. “They preferred to have friends in office,” says Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford.
The one notable outpost of robber barons in public office was the US Senate. Prior to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures. Consequently, the Senate was filled with businessmen who literally bought their seats through bribery, hence the body’s nickname “millionaires club” which persists to this day. (Tea Party activists have recently raised the idea of repealing the Seventeenth Amendment.)
These were not a particularly distinguished group of statesmen. Contra Romney’s rhetoric, businessmen do not always come to Washington merely to get government out of the way of self-sufficient businesses. Rather, they often came specifically to get laws passed that would favor their personal interests. Many of them hailed from extractive industries such as mineral mining, or mass agribusiness like cattle ranching, which needed cheap access to federal land. Others, most notably Leland Stanford of California, were railroad barons who sought federal subsidies. “To think of business and government as two separate worlds utterly misportrays reality. The two are intertwined,” says White. “Without government [robber barons] have no business.”