U.S. big business is returning to its political roots by embracing the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, in this year’s contest.
This reflects businesses’ dissatisfaction with President Obama’s regulatory policies and positions on tax increases, along with a natural fondness for one of their own, a former business executive.
Romney plays to this constituency. The Obama administration, he says, too often views business as “the bad guys.” By contrast, he told a recent Business Roundtable lunch that “you’re the good guys.” Earlier, at a fundraiser at a Tampa country club attended by many business contributors, he went further: “I love you.”
There are some important areas, however, where Romney is out of sync with much of big business, as his political calculations changed some long-held views. These include:
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• China. Most large U.S. companies favor economic engagement with China and abhor any possibility of a trade war. Although it isn’t unusual for a presidential candidate to bash China during the campaign, Romney has taken this sport to a new level and may be more serious.
He has vowed to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office; he has labeled the Chinese as “cheaters” and vowed, if necessary, to slap stiff tariffs on their exports. The candidate’s chief policy adviser, Lanhee Chen, recently declared that a “robust” willingness to confront China is the distinguishing element of Romney’s economic plan. “Here’s a place where Gov. Romney is really calling for a different approach,” Chen said.
That view is shared by some top political advisers. Getting tough with China is a staple of Romney’s early general-election ads; in a commercial directed at Ohio voters this week, the candidate says his initial act as president would be to “stand up to China.”
Romney is a recent convert to this position. As a successful business executive and former Massachusetts governor, he was a proponent of free trade and greater engagement with China and showed no protectionist proclivities. When he headed the 2002 Winter Olympics, he opposed punitive actions against China for human-rights abuses.
To be sure, some multinational companies, intimidated by the Chinese, privately welcome tough talk from Washington; Chinese trade and business policies are heavy-handed. Yet some experts and business leaders acknowledge that this ultimately is a bluff, because the U.S. is dependent on China’s purchases of Treasurys. They predict that, if elected, Romney would quickly revert to what he really believes. People in the Romney camp say that’s wrong.
• Immigration. Here, many major U.S. businesses are looking for a solution; they especially would like to increase the pool of highly skilled immigrants, and are willing to back comprehensive immigration reform as the way to do so.
Romney once held this position, too. Until the early stages of his 2008 presidential campaign, he expressed sympathy for immigration reform that created a pathway to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally – the approach championed by former President Bush, Sen. John McCain and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
In an apparent response to the anti-immigration sentiments of the Republican political base, Romney then adopted a tough line. He raised the stakes in his party’s primaries this year, embracing the controversial Arizona law and attacking Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as being too soft on immigration.
Some supporters of the Republican nominee say he’s already starting to soften his posture as he pivots to the general election and courts the Hispanic vote. Still, the anti-immigration base in the Republican Party will make it hard to change his position much once he’s in the White House.
• Deficit reduction. There is strong support in the business community for a big deficit-reduction plan. All the bipartisan and independent recommendations are along the lines of those put forth by a majority of both Democrats and Republicans on the Bowles-Simpson panel. It calls for a $4 trillion deficit reduction over 10 years; 35 percent of that amount would be achieved through tax increases and 65 percent through spending cuts, especially of entitlements.
Romney praises the concept of Bowles-Simpson and rejects the plan, insisting he wouldn’t support even $1 of tax increases for every $10 of spending cuts. Deficit-reduction plans that focus almost exclusively on spending won’t attract Democratic support, and probably are politically unpalatable because they would require draconian Medicare cuts.
The Republican nominee also has insisted that his huge tax-cut proposal – he would reduce the top individual rate to 28 percent from the current 35 percent, lower capital gains and dividend taxes, and eliminate the estate tax – could be financed by limiting tax preferences for the wealthy, who would benefit from his tax cuts.
Erskine Bowles, the Democratic co-chairman of the committee, said Romney is wrong; his plan would require middle-class tax increases, too. “It’s just not enough money there in getting rid of the tax expenditures that only affect the upper-income people,” he said in a recent interview.
Romney also is to the right of some top executives on social issues. A number of big businesses have supported gay marriage; Paul Singer, a New York hedge fund magnate and Romney backer, has been a major donor to this cause.
Obama backs gay marriage; Romney backs a federal law banning it. Many of the gains for the gay and lesbian community in the past few years have resulted from executive actions by the president; a Republican in the White House, given the party’s social-conservative base, might reverse some of those.
There always are trade-offs in backing a presidential candidate. Some private-equity executives support the president, who has criticized that industry, even though Romney, a former head of Bain Capital, used to be one of them. Singer vehemently opposes much of the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation measure as well as higher taxes on the wealthy, putting him in line with the Republican nominee.