Romney’s disqualification

Romney denies that he hired illegal aliens, though they were hired by his contractor to work on his property. If Romney’s idea of delegation is abdication, and if he thinks it’s not his fault when someone working for him does the wrong thing, then he’s profoundly unfit to be President.

Unlike the circus clowns he’s now forced to share a stage with, Mitt Romney is a plausible candidate for the Presidency. But he’s also a singularly unappetizing one, even putting aside his loyalty to the plutocracy.

Some people think Romney got the better of his set-to with Rick Perry over immigration, though winning a battle of wits with an unarmed man isn’t such a great accomplishment.

But if we get away from the drama and focus on the facts, Romney’s answer was actually a double disqualification for the office he seeks. As Steve Benen points out, Romney engaged in “accidental candor” when he quoted himself as saying to his lawn-care firm, “Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”

In other words, his objection was not to breaking the law, but to how it would play politically.

But that’s the shallower of the two disqualifications. The deeper is embodied in Romney’s claim that he never hired illegal aliens. They were hired, by his contractor, to work on his property, but Romney disclaims responsibility because he didn’t do the deed himself but delegated it to someone else, and can’t be held accountable for his agent’s misconduct. In other words, he’s satisfied that he had deniability, and thinks we should be satisfied, too.

The President does very little himself; most of his actions are through subordinates. The most important skill of a President is giving clear instructions and finding people who will carry them out correctly. If Romney’s idea of delegation is abdication, and if he thinks it’s not his fault when someone working for him does the wrong thing, then he’s profoundly unfit to be President.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

27 thoughts on “Romney’s disqualification”

  1. Good to know that you think that Obama is responsible for every act of misconduct carried out by any employee or contractor of the executive branch or the many federal departmets it manages.

    1. Perhaps you should work on reading comprehension; the point is that Romney was interested in deniability when he knew the truth.

      1. Setting aside his reasoning, he seems to comprehend fine. MK: “…if he thinks it’s not his fault when someone working for him does the wrong thing, then he’s profoundly unfit to be President.” Your reading comprehension, it seems, should be a little more comprehensive. We could waste time nitpicking whether deniability and delegation are clearly enough demarcated as important concerns (each is noted as such), but the “plausible deniability” point is not–at least not obviously so–meant to be more important than the “inability to delegate” point.

      2. Barry, while sd’s larger point is facetious, let’s consider a particular example — the treatment of Bradley Manning.
        Obama’s attitude there certainly seems to be one of tacitly encouraging inhuman treatment of the man, while having it done at arm’s length and with no explicit orders that can be traced back to him.

  2. I’m sorry; there are many reasons Romney shouldn’t be our next President, but making a totally understandable, pragmatic & private statement such as, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals,” isn’t one of them.

    Its not unlike a priest walking into his rectory and catching his alter boys shooting a game of craps; “are you kids crazy, do you know what would happen to me if a reporter popped in here and saw you doing this?“

    1. Good point – Mark, this sort of deniability is the standard for the USA know (and probably for the entire history). Bush and Cheney started the new upgrade, Obama established it as the bipartisan norm.

  3. I suspect I would loath a Romney presidency, but there’s a difference between holding somebody responsible for the hiring behavior of their own subordinates, (Basically everybody in the entire Executive branch, if you’re President.) and holding them responsible for hiring behavior of a subcontractor. You don’t typically have detailed control over the latter.

    1. Brett,
      I thought you knew something about corporate America. Corporations typically hire subcontractors rather than subordinates because they want to escape responsibility for behavior. There are some exceptions to the rule (specialists, surge hires, etc.), where subcontractors are genuinely needed for added flexibility. But generally, the deniable control of (and thus responsibility for) subcontractors is a feature, not a bug.

      Of course, our Supreme Court is doing its best to eliminate this particular form of hypocrisy through cases like Wal-Mart v. Dukes, where all the necessary evasion of responsibility can be done in-house, through appropriate antipersonnel policies.

  4. I had the same thought about how Romney was setting himself up with ‘plausible deniability’, but I guess I don’t view it as a straight-up disqualification. Just a garden variety symptom of our broader culture of non-accountability. “I can’t have any illegals” is of a piece with “this SPV shell corporation needs to be ‘bank-ruptcy remote’, ’cause we’ve got to have this s&*tty deal off our balance sheet”.

    If we disqualified every ambitious corporate climber in America, who would be left to switch off the lights?

  5. Romney would have gained immeasurably by owning up to HIS error. In addition to being smart from a judo perspective, forgiveness & redemption would have quickly flowed from the GOP religious base, right?

  6. sd, of course the President isn’t personally responsible for every act of misconduct in the executive branch. He’s responsible for setting up a system that discourages misconduct. In Romney’s case, there was a one-year gap between the newspaper story about the fact that he had illegals doing his yardwork and his eventually taking action. Not good enough. But that’s not my point. My point is that he thinks it is good enough; that’s the standard to which he holds himself. Red card!

  7. I don’t know the facts in Romney’s case, but companies and individuals hire lawn services all the time.

    Am I really responsible for checking the birth certificates or green cards of everyone who that service sends out?

    Purely a hypo, as I cut my own grass, etc. But I don’t buy this at all. Kinda reachin’ here, Mark.

  8. Mark–Gotta call a foul on you for “overreaching.”

    I lease my office as a subtenant of another law firm that leases a floor and a half in an office building from an unrelated real estate partnership. The landlord subcontracts the office cleaning to a third-party. Most, if not all, of the cleaning staff are Hispanic. I know that I have no obligation to determine their immigration status. Were I even to attempt to do so, I would look like Barney Fife screaming “Citizen’s arrest. Citizen’s arrest.”

    It is true that the President of the U.S. is “responsible” for everything that his subordinates do on his or her watch. However, that does not mean that the President should resign or is disqualified for re-election if, for instance, a subordinate officer commits either an act or omission of misfeasance or malfeasance. In this regard, I would note that the U.S. does not have the tradition, maintained to a great extent in England, of public officials resigning when something even seems amiss. (Last Friday, British Defense Minister Liam Fox resigned when questions were raised over a close personal relationship with a businessman who had some questionable dealings. See here: I doubt seriously whether Justices Scalia or Thomas will find this instructive.) I believe that similar principles are in effect in the U.S. military services.

    1. Actually, the character who exclaimed, “Citizen’s arrest” was Gomer Pyle (before he enlisted in the Marine Corps and left the service station to his cousin Goober).

  9. Why would Barney be screaming “Citizen’s arrest”? He was a deputy sheriff, if he felt like arresting somebody, there’ was nothing “citizen’s” about it.

    But, yes, every once in a while Mark embraces his inner political hack. In fact, pretty darned often, if it’s a campaign year…

  10. Folks,

    All this attention to Romney’s landscaping service, as important as it is, is distracting us from the real ethical scandal. Namely, that Romney’s hand-picked attorney general of MA authorized a program to sell firearms to drug traffickers and then lied to an investigative committee of the state legislature about it. Romney knew there were serious questions about program and not only refused to investigate, but actually sent his administration goons to harrass those news organizations that were spending time looking into the story.

    Oh, wait a minute…

  11. Romney knew perfectly well illegal activity was going on, and turned a blind eye to it for a year. Instead of saying “Sorry, I screwed up” he says “Not my problem!” It’s not “reaching” to call bullshit.

  12. You want a scandal? How about the Obama administration going back to Bush era documents, and changing them, to support it’s claim that the US has never recognized Jerusalem as being in Israel? This is well into “We have always been at war with Eastasia” territory.

    I wonder what other documents they’re busy airbrushing before responding to the subpoenas they’ve just gotten?

  13. NYShooter: I think you’ve got the analogy wrong, because you missed the fact that Romney has been campaigning on a more-anti-immigrant-than-thou platform. He’s attacked Perry for being too soft on undocumented teenagers, and endorsed the general hang ’em high policy that seems to appeal to the republican base. So I’ll offer a couple of other analogies that it’s more like, depending on whether you think Romney is just pandering or actually believes illegal immigration to be an evil act:

    1) A prosecutor who is running for higher office by raiding private poker parties comes upon his staff engaged in a game with thousands of dollars on the table and says, “are you guys crazy, do you know what would happen to me if a reporter popped in here and saw you doing this?“
    2) A priest walks into the rectory and finds another priest sexually assaulting an altar boy, and says “are you crazy, do you know what would happen to me if a reporter popped in here and saw you doing this?“

    An analogy based on the notion that everyone involved considers employing undocumented workers no big deal doesn’t hold up.

    1. Well, considering it’s Mitt Romney we’re talking about and the depth of his convictions depends on what moment of the day it is, that he considered covering his a$$ first, and foremost, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

      But, (in a sane world) your point taken.

  14. Having had illegal immigrants on the contractor’s staff is no a serious breach. Not alone. Assuming the number of agents in the employ of wealthy private individuals, are we to expect a political candidate to personally investigate every contractor and subcontractor’s HR files? In personal life, expectations for diligence are justifiably lower than in running public institutions.

    We can’t reasonably expect one to know details about the employees of all one’s contractors. I suppose he could have used his wealth to assign a personal investigator to check out the employee.

    Otherwise, I see no basis being proposed for where to draw the line. Investigate, benotfore making dinner reservations, that everyone working at the restaurant is doing so legally? When making purchases, that vendors are properly documented (not just in terms of immigration status, but city licenses, etc.)?

    In my view, this is the one piece of evidence that matters: “Romney knew perfectly well illegal activity was going on, and turned a blind eye to it for a year” (MK).

    Once he knew, he had to stop immediately (i.e., assuming one agrees illegal immigrant workers should not be employed at all; I might personally consider it forgivable if certain unlikely conditions were met).

    OK, that’s an ethical point against him (maybe other kinds, too).

    As posted by others, there are many reasons Romney should not be President.

    But his statement (“I’m running for office…”) is damning only if you interpret it to be his only concern, which isn’t obvious. Not to defend Romney (but, instead, reasonable inference), he could well have been using the statement to dramatize the importance of the matter, or his own authority over the contractor (I’m political, respect my power, do what I say dammit). We can’t know with much certainty out of context.

    That he knowingly allowed the employ of undocumented workers to continue might be evidence that his only concern was political — except for the very fact that he allowed it to continue! That seems a sign of personal and political incompetence.

    Clearly he has demonstrated incompetence at delegation (and/or perhaps any sense of P.R), which is disqualifying for serious executive office.

  15. Did Romney really know, for a year, that the undocumented workers were tending his grounds? Maybe this was one of the houses that Romney doesn’t spend much time in.

  16. Imagine you were running for office, and you were confronted with this undocumented worker situ., would you come up with “Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”? It’s not very artful, is it? Maybe that’s a good thing? Or maybe not.

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