Putting Mitt Romney in a world of Bain

May 18th, 2012



This piece was originally posted on Politico.

‘More to come.’

That’s what a source close to the Obama campaign told POLITICO about the ad attacking Mitt Romney’s record as chief executive officer of Bain Capital. This is not a one-week story. It’s going to be the central narrative of the Obama campaign.

Why are Democrats so confident they can win on the anti-Bain issue? Because it hits Romney on the defining theme of his campaign: Romney’s claim that he’s a turnaround artist.

His business experience is supposed to prove that he knows how to turn the U.S. economy around. Didn’t Bain Capital turn around failing businesses? Didn’t Romney turn around the nearly bankrupt Winter Olympic Games in 2002?

Bain Capital is a private investment firm. The purpose of a private investment firm is not to create jobs. It’s to create wealth. For whom? For its investors. Sometimes creating wealth means creating jobs. But often it means eliminating jobs — closing companies, sending jobs overseas. The Democrats are rushing to get that argument out first.

“Bain Capital walked away with a lot of money that they made off this plant,” a steelworker says in the Obama attack ad. “We view Mitt Romney as a job destroyer.”

“It was like a vampire,” another steelworker says. “They came in and sucked the life out of us.”

President Barack Obama is trying to do the same thing that President George W. Bush did to Sen. John Kerry in 2004. Kerry was running as a war hero. (“I’m John Kerry, reporting for duty.”) The turning point in Kerry’s primary campaign came when a former Vietnam comrade-in-arms traveled from Oregon to Iowa to endorse Kerry and tell the story of how Kerry had saved his life. In early March 2004, one day after the Super Tuesday primaries, when Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination, Bush moved to define his opponent.

“Sen. Kerry,” Bush said in Los Angeles, “has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue.”

Kerry handed Bush live ammunition two weeks later at a West Virginia town hall meeting, while talking about a bill to provide emergency funds for U.S. troops. “I actually did vote for the $87 billion,” Kerry said, “before I voted against it.” The “flip-flop” charge reverberated through the GOP campaign for the next eight months.

Kerry was trying to run as a candidate of strength. It was a smart theme for the first presidential election after Sept. 11 . The problem was, America already had a strong president. The Bush campaign quickly demolished Kerry’s image of strength by depicting him as a flip-flopper.

George H.W. Bush did the same thing to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis wanted to run as a nonideological candidate. He told the Democratic convention that year: “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” But the Republicans quickly defined Dukakis as a Massachusetts liberal on issues like criminal furloughs, the death penalty, the American Civil Liberties Union and The Pledge of Allegiance. They blew up the central premise of the Dukakis campaign.

Exactly what Obama is trying to do to Romney.

It didn’t work when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used the Bain Capital issue against Romney in the Republican primaries. Conservatives denounced the attacks as anti-capitalist. That charge provoked a backlash against Gingrich among Republican primary voters.

But the Obama campaign is now hoping that the anti-Bain attacks will resonate with working-class voters who have been facing economic devastation. Obama’s support for same-sex marriage is certainly not going to win him many votes there.

The anti-Bain campaign does carry risks for Obama. One is the charge of hypocrisy. Obama has ties to Wall Street and has raised a lot of money from Wall Street executives. Another is negativism. Obama got elected with a positive campaign of hope and change. Many supporters may feel betrayed if he tries to get reelected ugly — the way Bush did in 2004.

A lot of Americans believe we ought to run government like a business. If we run government like a business, we could keep politics out of it. There’s no politics in business, right?

Actually, there’s a good reason you can’t run government like a business: Business is not a democracy. If business were a democracy — if, say, workers got to vote on the boss — it would be unproductive, wasteful and hopelessly gridlocked.

It would be just like government.