Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Engine Charlie" at work on the Romney campaign


What? What did I say?
In a story in Tuesday's New York Times about the state of Mitt Romney's campaign now that he has secured the GOP nomination, senior Romney campaign advisor Ed Gillespie is quoted on the difficulty he believes the Obama campaign will have criticizing Romney's business experience.

He says:

They've had a hard time painting Governor Romney as somehow sinister. The fact is every time they attack Mitt Romney for his experience in the private sector, they reinforce the idea that President Obama is hostile to the private sector.

Well, I'm not so sure. Whenever I hear something like this, my mind goes immediately to that old quote by Charles E. Wilson, also known as "Engine Charlie." Wilson was the Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower from 1953 to 1957.

During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wilson was asked about his large stock holdings in General Motors, a company he had led. When asked if, as Secretary of Defense, he could make a decision contrary to the interests of GM, he said he could. He then added: "because for years what I thought was good for the country was good for general motors and vice versa." Wilson never actually said: "What's good for General Motors is good for the country," which is the common misquote, but the sentiment is there.

I remember being told about Wilson's comment growing up in my working class neighbourhood. It was quite a famous statement in its time and for years after. Back then we would have had no idea what it would have meant to be "hostile to the private sector." What we understood, perhaps instinctively, was that what was good for big business was good for big business and not necessarily for the country or it citizens. To say the least, we looked upon Wilson's statement cynically.

Republicans have always tried to make the case, perhaps in more nuanced ways, that what is good for big business is good for America. I think the obvious point is, this is sometimes true and other times not true. Asking questions about particular cases does not make someone anti-private sector.

In my experience, voters are far more sophisticated than this, and no amount of back-door red baiting is going to scare them off.

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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