The United States isn’t sure what year it’s reliving. In 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, it was 1974, the previous high point of liberalism. In 2010, it was 1980, the triumph of the reactionary right over liberalism. Or maybe it was 1994, with Gingrich and his Contract for America stopping Clinton. Now, as more and more unpalatable details come out about Bain Capital, the Mitt Romney firm which bought up and in the process bankrupted a number of companies, it’s the late 1980’s, with the movie Wall Street’s famous dictum “greed is good” threatening to define the man who many think is the prohibitive favorite to be the Republican nominee. The difference between 2012 and the late 1980’s is that more people are hurting now so that class inequality is getting a lot more attention.
Romney’s Wall Street side may not hurt him with base Republicans (we’ll see tomorrow in South Carolina’s primary), but I suspect he’ll want to change the movie to Pretty Woman by the general election. Election pragmatism calls for him to play Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis rather than Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko.
Initially in Pretty Woman, Gere is a Gekko figure, someone who doesn’t care about anything except making money. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish reminded me of the following key scene:
Fumbling with his tie, Edward (Richard Gere) tells Vivian (Julia Roberts) about his business.]
Vivian: You don’t actually have a billion dollars, huh?
Edward: No. I get some of it from banks, investors… it’s not an easy thing to do.
Vivian: And you don’t make anything…
Vivian: … and you don’t build anything.
Vivian: So whadda ya do with the companies once you buy ‘em?
Edward: I sell them. [Viv reaches for his tie.]
Vivian: Here, let me do that. You sell them.
Edward: Well, I… don’t sell the whole company, I break it up into pieces, and then I sell that off, it’s worth more than the whole.
Vivian: So, it’s sort of like, um… stealing cars and selling ‘em for parts, right?
Edward: [sighs exasperatedly] Yeah, sort of. But legal.
By the end of the film, however, Edward is moving from raiding corporations to building ships—which is an improvement. (True, landing large government contracts to build battleships is still problematic, but the movie doesn’t admit it.) It is a kinder, gentler capitalism, a phrase used by George H. W. Bush to distance himself from Wall Street excesses and Ronald Reagan’s misplaced belief that unregulated capitalists can be counted on to do the right thing..
I owe this idea to film historian Susan Jeffords who argues that movies in the early 1990’s, reflecting the public mood, shifted from hard-bodied heroes to kinder gentler heroes. Heroes in the 1980’s were Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator, Terminator), Mel Gibson (The Lethal Weapon movies), and Sylvester Stallone (the Rambo movies). In the early 1990’s, they were Tom Hanks (who won Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump), Steve Martin, and a Schwarzenegger who was poked fun at his hard-bodied past (Kindergarten Cop) or became a softer robot (Terminator II). Bush accordingly talked about “a thousand points of light.”
At present, all the Republican presidential candidates see hard-bodied as the way to go and talk freely about using torture, suspending habeas corpus, killing enemies, deporting illegal immigrants, ending Planned Parenthood, and bombing Iran. Food stamp recipients are derided and laissez faire capitalism is celebrated. The base, I guess, demands that the candidates double down on the tough talk, hard times or no. But a general electorate may demand a candidate who is less harsh.
Of course, Romney (if he’s the nominee) would then need to change from a hard right conservative to a compassionate one. In other words, it would call for another flipflop. He’s had lots of practice but will find it harder to flop than it was to flip.