The Politics of Bain Capital
It was astonishing to hear Republican operatives on the Sunday talk shows virtually conceding the Presidential election to Obama. The point was best put by James Carville who, of course, is not a Republican operative. He said that the Bain and tax issues are like moldy lawn furniture. All you can do is throw them out. But, somewhat less pungently, Matthew Dowd and George Will said the same thing. The two issues are not going away. Romney had a long time to prepare to deal with them, and the question is why Romneyís opponents in the primaries did not exploit these issues to greater advantage. The strongest remark was by a Senator rather than an operative. Kyl of Arizona said that the Republicans will take over the Senate as well as keep the House and so the President will not be able to ram his policies through. He was conceding the election, something which John Boehner just about did last week when he said that people will vote for Romney even though they donít like him because that is the way to get rid of Obama. That is faint praise for your partyís standard bearer. Nobody likes Romney and the tone of Republicans, excepting good soldiers like Mary Matalin and potential Vice Presidential nominees like Kelly Ayotte, is good riddance to him. The Evangelicals will stay home rather than vote for a Mormon and will hope for a candidate more to their liking, perhaps Rick Santorum, the next time around. The only chance for the Wall Street Republicans to take back the party is after a nominee that the Tea Party wholeheartedly supports gets defeated.
Like a lot of other people, including leading Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Ed Rendell, there was much to feel queezy about in all this talk about when Romney left Bain Capital and what Bain Capital did with the companies it controlled. It might be a good two or three day story and it does keep Romney off his game and keeps the press from talking about the economy and it further knocks Romney down a peg by making him look like a small time chiseler when in fact he was a big time chiseler. But if there is anything to it, it has yet to be disclosed. Perhaps his listing as CEO, President and major stockholder of Bain for the SEC was just a formality or, as the Times has it today, the right way to make the filing because he still did have those major financial interests in the company. Was there any wrongdoing that took place because of this listing or that this listing covered up? None has come to light. But Bill Clinton came around to backing inquiries into Bain Capital, perhaps because it turned out to be at least a one week story. There is no getting around the fact that Mitt asked for close scrutiny of his business dealings when he trumpeted his activities at Bain as his main qualification to be President and cited jobs created after he left Bain as ones that resulted from his time there. So why not jobs sent overseas after he left Bain? Did they put in new policies at Bain that were contrary to his wishes during the three years he still had the formal titles? This most secretive of Presidential candidates just doesnít say.
The Times has not played the story big though MSNBC did, as might be expected, and this weekend it emerged, as I say, as the central story on the Sunday programs. The Obama campaign had smelled blood and so it had Stephanie Cutler at the end of last week call Romney a liar, and her statement has been put up there on the television screen over and over again. But to what avail? Some pundits say that these are the summer doldrums and that only the Convention speeches of the candidates, the debates, and what the economy is doing in October, will matter, and they are probably right. The Bain story, however, is an insight into how a candidate handles an unexpected turn of events, however expected this particular turn of events was. That is because Presidents get unexpected challenges at any moment and it is not clear how they will play out either as policy or in terms of electoral politics. Iraq, of all things, worked out to the advantage of the incumbent in 2004, while the failed attempt to release the hostages in Iran worked out to the disadvantage of Jimmy Carter. You never know. The financial debacle did not work out to McCainís advantage and the mild recession under Bush 41 worked against his reelection. Bad economic news works against incumbents, apparently, though we still canít say whether that has to be national or if some progress or better news in some states against a bad background noise from the economy will alter that outcome. Politics is full of imponderables. A test run is in order.
But I still have my misgivings about the attacks on Bain. It isnít that I am against negative advertising. To the contrary, it may be the most informative ad that reaches the small screen. Positive ads, like Reaganís ďMorning in AmericaĒ, are just so much gush. But the negative advertising has to be truthful and to the point, as attacks on Newtís loony policy ideas and his character certainly were. There is no reason to attack outsourcing. It is a sound business practice in a global economy that enables the United States to sell a lot of farm goods to China and elsewhere. So what if the uniforms for the American Olympic team are made in China. So are uniforms for the United States Army. Yes, Harry Reid is just playing politics, but then so are the Republican spokespeople who do not want to say outsourcing is legitimate because they do not want to be quoted as having said that and so supply material for an Obama ad.
The important point is not that the Republicans are on the run over the outsourcing issue. It is why they are panicking so early in the campaign. Is it because they suspect that Romney, still as of now spending a long weekend in New Hampshire after his dud appearances on the networks at the end of last week, already has nothing left in his tank, that he never had any energy there anyway? The Associated Press correctly stated that Obama is jabbing away with the tax-Bain issues. Mohammad Ali jabbed people until they just fell down. The question is why Romney hasnít changed the subject by announcing some policies or ended this discussion by releasing more tax returns, even should that start another discussion that is to his disadvantage. Canít his people spin anything? A President canít be this passive.
Everybody says that fighting the campaign out on negative grounds is not good for the nation (however much I may think that a Romney victory would be a disaster for the nation). Obama will have no mandate after he wins. But there really is no such thing as a mandate. If you are President, you can push anything you want. There is, however, a serious issue with this particular negative attack. The small ball approach may be working in the swing states, but it steps on the larger message which will be more important as the campaign goes on. The media story a few days ago should have been Joe Biden's speech to the NAACP, which I gather is to be enunciated as "N-A-A-C-P" rather than "N-double A-C-P". Joe had to catch himself to say it right.
Biden gave a very good speech. He contrasted the policies of Romney and Bush on foreign policy, health care, taxes, and so on, and asked whether we wanted to go back to the policies of the last decade. Those are the reasons that motivate me, my justification for Obama. I think he has done a good job on all those issues, though I of course admit that I could never vote for a Republican for President. Biden also asked the crowd with a smile whether they thought they would have to be refighting the battles around the Voting Rights Act one more time and of course they said they did not. Neither had I. These are the things that should color the political campaign: who is Progressive? Not who is subject to a gotcha moment. But whatever works, except that I remember the sinking feeling I had when the Kerry Convention centered on him saluting as he, to use his words, "reported for duty". That set up the Swift Boat attacks and distracted from policy issues. Go with the arguments that don't make your supporters cringe.
I come back to how weak Romney has been on the comeback. The message that is coming through about him is even more damaging than whatever it is he did at Bain. It is not that he is the moderate who is clever enough to shed whatever skin he does not need. The message is that you can be successful at business without being very smart. He is beginning to sound like Sarah Palin minus the twinkle.