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CNN to Romney: Where’s the Beef?

May 30, 2012

Mitt Romney this week told a tale about a man who said that the constitution should be amended to require that a president have spent “three years working in business.”  Romney clearly meant this to say that Barack Obama is not qualified to be president, but Romney is.  So three years in business is now the Romney Test for Presidential Eligibility.

Before Obama turned to public sector employment, he held a variety of positions in the private sector.  After he graduated from college, he worked for a year as a financial analyst at the Business International Corporation.  Then he served three years as director of the non-profit Developing Communities Project.  He went back to law school, then spent three years as an associate attorney at the firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, followed by several more years “of counsel” to the firm.  He was a law school lecturer for 12 years.  He served for eight years on the boards of directors of various not-for-profit firms.

So if the Romney Test disqualifies Obama, that means that neither Obama’s years of private legal practice nor his years running non-profits constituted “working in business” – not even enough to make up the difference after one year as a financial analyst, which presumably even Romney would concede constitutes “working in business.”

To be fair, the Romney Test also would have disqualified Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, whose only private sector experience was law practice.  Also, Abe Lincoln’s private sector experience, aside from a brief spell as the owner of a failed general store, consisted entirely of the practice of law.  Teddy Roosevelt never practiced law at all, having dropped out of law school to run for the New York State Assembly.  TR did run a ranch for three years in North Dakota, until his cattle died in a bad winter and he moved back to New York.  Ranching presumably counts as “working in business,” although Teddy’s second job as deputy sheriff taints any claim to private sector purity.

The godfather of modern Republicanism, Ronald Reagan, spent no real time “working in business,” unless performing as an actor and radio personality constitutes “working in business.”  Dwight Eisenhower’s only private sector work was the presidency of Columbia University – an estimable position, no doubt, but not one that most people would consider to be “working in business.”  If running a non-profit university was “working in business” for Ike, then running non-profits would have to be “working in business” for Obama.

John Kennedy experienced only the briefest first-hand look at the private sector, when his father arranged for him to work a few weeks as a reporter for the Hearst organization.

On the other hand, Ulysses Grant had experience working in plenty of businesses, pretty much all of which failed dismally.  Only slightly more encouraging was George W. Bush’s pre-presidential business career.  And Jimmy Carter’s profitable peanut farm didn’t make his presidency a booming success.

This is classic Romney – tossing off a quick laugh line is a lot easier than seriously engaging the problems of the country.  And the media is starting to catch on – Anderson Cooper quizzed Romney stand-in Kevin Madden on the Romney Test; Soledad O’Brien went after Will Cain about the obvious, and obviously intentional, subtext of Romney’s expounding on the constitutional qualifications for the presidency.

The time is coming that Romney has to start talking specifically about what he will do differently than Obama.  For all of Romney’s bombast about getting tough on Syria, Iran, and any other place where events do not unfold entirely to our liking, Foreign Policy says that Romney would conduct our nation’s foreign affairs about the same as Obama has.  Domestically, we’ve gotten the platitude about “President Obama’s failed policies,” but precious little about what exactly President Romney would do differently.

Readers of a certain age will recall the Wendy’s ads from 1984 (and the rest of you can watch it on YouTube) – specifically the line delivered by one Clara Peller, directed at Wendy’s competitors at McDonald’s and Burger King.  “Where’s the beef?” she demanded, over a nearly beefless big burger bun.  When nobody answered, she concluded decisively, “I don’t think there’s anybody back there.”  Walter Mondale borrowed from the ad to devastate Gary Hart in a 1984 primary debate:  Hart was promising to govern with “new ideas,” but left the specifics unspecified.  When Mondale demanded, “Where’s the beef?”, and Hart had no answer, the electorate concluded there wasn’t anybody back there.  CNN, at least, is starting to ask where the beef is.  Just now, it remains undetermined whether there’s anybody back there.

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