If the latest poll from Gallup and USA Today tells us anything, it’s that for many Americans, Mitt Romney is—on the face of things—a plausible alternative to President Obama. 63 percent of respondents said that Romney’s business background, including his tenure at Bain Capital, would lead him to make good decisions in dealing with the nation’s economic problems—only 29 percent disagreed. As for an overall assessment of the Republican nominee, 54 percent say that he has the personality and leadership qualities a person needs to be president, compared to 57 percent for Obama.
Nate Silver has an excellent post this morning on the Romney campaign’s reaction to the attacks on Bain Capital. The short story is that Romney might be overreacting to the controversy; he continues to equivocate and go on the defensive, despite the thin evidence that these attacks are having an effect on the race. Both Obama and Romney are roughly where they were three months ago, when the general election began in earnest, and polls taken since the attacks began have been inconclusive on the effect of anti-Bain ads.
Over the last week, Mitt Romney has struggled to deal with revelations over his tenure at Bain Capital and the extent of his involvement from 1999 to 2002. He insists he retired in 1999—and thus is not responsible for Bain’s conduct afterward—despite the fact that documents from a variety of sources show Romney as the owner, CEO, and sole shareholder, who continued to sign documents, sit on board members, and may have had a small role in managing the firm.
The question of when exactly Mitt Romney "left" Bain Capital may not be the most trivial campaign controversy in history (it certainly has more importance than the dozens of "My opponent said something that when taken out of context sounds troubling!" kerfuffles we have to suffer through every four years), but when it has gotten to the point that we're checking the Wayback Machine to see if Romney was listed on Bain Capital's website in 2000, we're drifting far away from the reasons this is supposed to matter. Just to remind you, Romney's departure date tells us whether he is an honest job-creating business leader (1999) or a rapacious job-destroying vulture capitalist (2002).
I was hoping that the five interviews Romney did with the TV networks on Friday might clear this up, but unfortunately they focused on things like whether Barack Obama's campaign representatives are super-meanies for how they're criticizing Romney. But a couple of simple questions might clear this whole thing up so we can move on. If I had the chance to interview Romney (just so you know, Governor, the Prospect's doors are always open), I'd ask this:
The past 24 hours have been abysmal for the Romney campaign. Not only has it scrambled to deal with revelations regarding Mitt Romney’s “shadow years” at Bain Capital, but further digging has led to more serious questions—and accusations—about Romney’s conduct. Put another way, you know you’re in trouble when even a friendly piece—by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler—has to tackle the question of whether Romney broke the law.
There's something weird about Bain Capital. It seems that the company was going along doing what ordinary private-equity firms do—buying and selling companies, making lots of money—until about 1999 or so, when things took a sinister turn. At that point, terrible things began to happen. The firms they backed went into bankruptcy, costing thousands of people their jobs, while Bain still walked away with millions in management fees. They invested in companies that profited from outsourcing and offshoring. Who knows, they may have been producing magical hair-thickening elixirs made from the tears of orphans. Every time one of these new revelations comes out, it seems to concern the period after 1999.
Campaign professionals tend to believe that the most potent attack you can make uses your opponents own words against him, preferably if they're on video and can be replayed over and over. If you don't have that, it helps to have third-party validation of your attack from the most credible, non-partisan source you can find. Which is why it's so helpful when an established news organization reports something damaging about your opponent, which you can then talk about and put in your ads. If the third-party source is credible enough, you won't have to argue about whether the allegation is true, but merely about what it means and how much it matters.
Which is why the Obama campaign was so pleased when the Washington Post reported that under Mitt Romney (and after he departed), Bain Capital invested in a number of companies that specialized in helping other companies outsource work to foreign countries. Not only was this new information that could be used to attack Romney, but it had the imprimatur of the Post. Within days, the story was showing up in the president's speeches and the campaign's ads. So the Romney campaign is doing what it can to wind back the clock on the story:
Thanks to recent stories by the Washington Post and the New York Times, Bain Capital is back in the news. In particular, there’s a renewed focus on outsourcing; both newspapers found that Bain “pioneered” outsourcing during the 1990s, when it was led by Mitt Romney. This is an irresistible target for any political campaign, and it comes as no surprise to see that it forms the core of a new ad from the Obama team, where the campaign asks–pointedly–“does America need an outsourcer-in-chief?”
The core weakness in Barack Obama’s reelection effort is his poor standing with working-class whites. Obama won only 40 percent of whites without a college degree in 2008, but his strong standing with college-educated whites made up for the deficiency. This time around, the picture is much worse. He’s at 35 percent support with white voters without a college degree, and down with white voters generally.
One mark of a skilled pundit is the ability to take the day's news and mold it to shape his or her own pre-existing interests, beliefs, prejudices, and hobbyhorses. In that spirit, let me offer my thoughts on an interesting article today in the Washington Post, revealing that while Mitt Romney was the head of Bain Capital, the firm invested in companies that specialized in outsourcing jobs overseas. What does this tell us about a potential Romney presidency? Let's look at the facts first, keeping in mind that Romney was at Bain until 1999:
Back in April, President Obama gave a speech to the American Society of News Editors, where he excoriated Mitt Romney—and the Republican Party—for its adherence to the “roadmap” devised by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. In the speech, Obama presented the Ryan roadmap as modern Republicanism, distilled to its essence. He attacked the plan for its large, across-the-board tax cuts, its complete extension of the Bush tax cuts, and its plan to privatize Medicare. More importantly, he spelled out the implications of Ryan’s budget: to pay for his tax cuts, the federal government would have to suck the marrow from its social services.
Mitt Romney is unsettled by your questions. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
I've been on a long crusade, which began before this campaign and will probably continue after it, to get everyone to think more clearly about what it means when a politician says "I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman." It's particularly important this year, of course, because one of the major party candidates is putting forward his business experience as the primary rationale for his candidacy. I don't know if that's ever happened before, and it certainly hasn't happened in the modern era. We're still waiting to hear what stunning business insights Mitt Romney will bring to the White House that no other person could possibly have. And yesterday, Time's Mark Halperin — himself the target of a lot of well-deserved derision over the years — made an admirable effort to try to pin Romney down on this question in an interview. Unsurprisingly, he failed. Let's read an excerpt:
There’s been a growing sense over the last month that Barack Obama is winning battles but losing the war—until this past week, when he lost the battle too. Governor Mitt Romney, repudiating an effort by the former chairman of a major online brokerage firm to underwrite a $10 million advertisement that raises anew questions about the president’s former minister, equated the tactic to the “character assassination” represented by questions about Romney’s experience with the private-equity company Bain Capital.