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Mitt should bat for free markets, not business

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President Obama has thrown taxpayer money at General Motors and Chrysler, touted the bailout of Wall Street, extended $25 billion in export loan guarantees to Boeing, handed out billions in stimulus money to solar and wind companies, given $3 billion to car dealers and automakers through "cash for clunkers," and pushed through a health care law backed by the drug industry that forces Americans to buy private insurance.

But on Tuesday night Mitt Romney attacked Obama as anti-business.

Romney's victory speech after the D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin primaries highlighted his misreading of Obama's big-government economic policies and also his misunderstanding of the bailout-era electorate.

Romney's address -- fittingly aimed at Obama rather than the GOP rivals whose odds of winning are now near zero -- was excellent in some ways. He articulated some important themes and made some telling critiques, contrasting Obama's "government-centered society" to an "opportunity society led by free people and free enterprises."

But Romney's aim was a few degrees off target when he criticized Obama's treatment of business. "President Obama has been attacking successful businesses of every kind imaginable," was the heart of Romney's charge. Yes, Obama rants against "fat cats," and targets specific businesses and industries. But more often, the president has propped up businesses and subsidized industries. Romney has heard the tone of Obama's occasional populist rhetoric, but he has apparently missed the substance of Obama's embrace of corporate welfare.

Romney rightly noted that Obama's economic intervention hurts small business: "New business startups -- and that's normally where we get job growth after a recession -- new business startups are down to the lowest level in 30 years." This is a crucial insight, but Romney misses its meaning by leaving out important context: Corporate profits rose again in 2011, hitting a record high of $1.5 trillion (which is triple the 2000 level), according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Corporations are also holding more cash -- an increase of $179 billion from 2009 to 2011, according to Moody's.

Big companies are making more money than ever before. This is an awkward fact for Romney's attack on Obama. But that's only because Romney is looking at Obama's record in the wrong way.

The Obama-Bush bailouts and the moral hazard they created have saved large corporations from extinction or contraction and allowed them access to cheaper capital. This slows the process of creative destruction that allows new businesses to grow, and it tilts the playing field in favor of the big guys. The handouts and subsidies of Obamanomics also flow naturally toward the biggest companies, which can afford to hire Obama's donors, fundraisers and former staffers as lobbyists -- witness Boeing's two-thirds share of Export-Import Bank loan guarantees from 2009-2011.

The same big-government actions that crush small business also protect big business. That's why Romney's attack on Obama as "anti-business" is off-key.

Romney's own economic vision errs similarly. Romney on Tuesday said "regulators have to see their job" as "promoting enterprise and fostering job creation. Washington has to become an ally of business, not the opposition of business." He's half-right, but why should regulators be "an ally of business"? Why not just leave business alone as much as possible? And is "fostering job creation" really Washington's job, as opposed to simply "allowing job creation"?

This talk of business-government cooperation is standard Romney fare, but it will hurt him this election. Defining himself as pro-business and Obama as anti-business sets Romney up for easy refutation. Obama can point to plenty of subsidies that have "fostered job creation" in his favored industries, and Obama can point to plenty of successful businesses he's helped with protective regulation and handouts.

But this pro-business frame also misses out on an opportunity to tap into the broad perception in this country, from Left to Right, that the game is rigged in favor of the well-connected and the too-big-to-fail. Romney, instead of merely attacking Obama for redistributing wealth, could point out that Obama often redistributes it upward, to the drug companies with their double-digit profit margins and to the likes of Boeing and General Electric.

A Republican who believes in free enterprise has a great opportunity, thanks to Obama's corporatism. Indeed, Romney could claim a populist mantel this election. But first Romney has to show that he understands the difference between being pro-free market and being pro-business.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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