Told ya so. I said earlier that Newt Gingrich had pretty much written the script for at least one Democratic television spot, with his double-barreled attack on Mitt Romney’s vulture capitalist career at the helm of Bain Capital. I just didn’t think I’d be saying “I told ya so,” this soon.
Yet, here we are. The attack that launched a number of similar attacks from the rest of the GOP field — not to mention an awful lot of analysis of the nature of private equity firms and questions about whether the contribute any real value to society or the economy — has now launched an Obama campaign attack ad and website: RomneyEconomics.Com.
Told ya so.
How well will this play for the Obama campaign? It’s a legitimate question. First off, this ground has been covered (scorched, even) by Gingrich and other Republican candidates. Second, as Howard Kurtz asks, how relevant an attack on Romney’s Bain background going to be in 2012? Not so much, says Kurtz. But in doing so he makes a point that undermines his overall take on the ad.
Romney’s business acumen is at the heart of his candidacy. His job was to take over distressed companies in ways that created wealth for Bain, regardless of the collateral damage. If Obama operatives can paint him as a heartless businessman, they will have badly damaged his brand—unless, of course, it turns out that voters are more focused on who can create jobs in the next four years than on the war stories of the past.
Certainly, coming on the heels of the WaPo article on an eighteen-year-old Romney’s bullying of a non-conforming (and closeted gay, at the time) classmate, does seem to build upon the impression of Romney bullying prep-school senior who grew up to be a “heartless businessman.” It does what charts and statistics can’t do. It puts a face on the suffering vulture capitalism leaves in its wake, similar to the way the popular documentary Bully puts a human face on the the consequences of bullying. And it does resonate on that level, for other reasons I hope to get to in another post.
It’s hardly a secret that Romney has a huge likability problem.
Very few votes are going to be cast on the basis of what Mitt Romney did or didn’t do to John Lauber in 1965. So that, per se, isn’t Romney’s problem. But this is: The story lands as another brick on pile of evidence amassing that he’s just a disagreeable human being. A few days ago I wrote about Barack Obama’s biggest problem, which is that despite all the many areas in which Americans rate him higher than Romney, the one on which they give Romney the edge happens to be pretty important: handling the economy. Now we get to Romney’s biggest problem. The likability factor. He ain’t got it. And he ain’t got much of a way to get it.
Indeed, according to Gallup Obama has a huge likeability edge over Romney — this Obama’s at 60%, compared to Romney’s 31% — which is why the Romney campaign is touting what Kurtz calls his “business acumen,” which is really another word for competence. Kurtz says that voters will dismiss ads about “the war stories of the past” and focus instead on “who can create jobs in the next four years.” It echoes what conservatives had to say after President Obama went public with his support for marriage equality for same-sex couples. “Obama,” the refrain went, “wants to talk about anything but the economy.”
There’s a problem with Kurtz’s analysis, and Jamelle Bouie makes it plain: the attack on Romney’s career at Bain is a direct attack on his competence.
Here’s why this is crucial. If President Obama has built his“ brand” around honesty and likeability, then Mitt Romney is trying to center his on competence; you may not like the former Massachusetts governor—you may not even trust him—but you know that he can fix the United States, and turn around the ship. It’s why he focuses so heavily on his career in venture capitalism, and why—as Politico describes—this morning, the Romney campaign is devoted to “steadily building up Romney as a safe and competent alternative to President Barack Obama.”
Indeed, the idea that Romney is competent is key to building a perception of moderation for the GOP nominee. In American politics—or at least, the coverage thereof—“moderation” is tied to affect. In truth, Howard Dean was a left-leaning centrist, but his loud opposition to George W. Bush made him an “extremist.” On the other end, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan wants to drastically reshape government with low taxes on the wealthy, and deep cuts to programs for the poor, sick, and infirm. But because of his affable, wonkish persona, he’s perceived as a mainstream figure, despite how radical his agenda is. Romney is on the Paul Ryan side of the ledger, with a budget plan that would shred the social safety net. He needs voters to see him as a reasonable and competent steward of their affairs, and not as a stalking horse for the right-wing.
The Obama ad (and it’s corresponding website,Romneyeconomics.com) is a direct attack on Romney’s competence. In much the same way as Karl Rove, the campaign is trying to turn Romney’s strength—his private-sector experience—into a weakness. “Yes, Governor Romney was a skilled generator of wealth, but he did so at the cost of families like yours. Just imagine what he’ll do in the White House.” The Romney campaign has been trying to do the same to the president—and may well succeed—but for now, it’s a half-step when compared to this effort.
It doesn’t get any plainer than that. Essentially, the Obama campaign does with this video what Gingrich, other Republican contenders, and the GOP itself could not do after Newt’s 27-minute-epic.
The problem for Newt and the rest of the Republicans is that they can’t blame the fact that more Americans see economic inequality as a problem at president Obama’s feet. The Occupy movement can be credited with pushing the issue to the forefront of our national politics, but happened largely because of economic conditions that add up the three decades of stagnant wages and increased costs of living for middle- and working-class Americans, just barely covered by cheap credit that allowed families to simulate increased living standards, until the economic crisis brought the whole house of cards tumbling down.
That’s what makes it “impossible” for Republicans to talk about the kind economic inequality that Bain and other vulture capital firms leave in their wake, as a part of just doing business.
Newt has, basically, created the perfect storm for Republicans going into the South Carolina primaries, with Mitt Romney — the Man from Bain, who still smells like a Wall Street boardroom, and probably now looks more than ever to South Carolina primary voters “like the guy who laid you off.” Newt has forced the Republicans into a conversation they can’t hold, and aren’t even remotely prepared for.
The funny part is that Newt every thought they could avoid it, and that Republicans still think they can avoid it.
The video picks up the conversation about the state of the economy, where conservatives left off.
Even now, the Romney campaign is backtracking on the number of jobs he created at Bain, downgrading a number from 100,000 to “thousands.” As I wrote earlier, that claim was always short on evidence. (It doesn’t help that most of the jobs Romney boasts of creating at Bain are low wage jobs, that don’t offer a path to middle-class status.) That’s what the Bain ad is attacking.
Given the probability that Romney will be the Republican nominee and Newt won’t, Gingrich probably doesn’t much care that he’s given President Obama a great line of attack against Romney. After all, even in the midst of an economic downturn, President Obama can at least take credit for having a hand in adding more than 1.4 million jobs to the economy, compared to Romney’s shaky claim of creating 100,000 jobs while at the helm of Bain. For that matter, Obama can claim to have helped create more jobs in Massachusetts than Romney did during his term as governor — 64,000 green jobs in two years, compared to 45,800 during Romney’s four years as governor.
I can almost hear president Obama quoting Gingrich on Romney’s “Wall Street model,” and comparing his record on job creation to Romney’s. Then he’ll probably look right into the camera and say something like this: “Americans reject that model. I don’t believe Americans are looking for a president to do for our economy what Bain did — under Mr. Romney’s leadership — to the companies in its portfolio, or the workers who lost their jobs, health insurance, retirement accounts, livelihoods, and perhaps even a little of their faith in the American Dream.”
I can definitely picture millions of Americans nodding in agreement with that simple truth.
It’s about the economy, not likeability. At Bain, the fates of the companies it bought and the workers they employed, took a back seat to creating wealth for Bain’s already wealthy investors. Creating jobs wasn’t the point. As Kurtz stated, the point was “to take over distressed companies in ways that created wealth for Bain, regardless of the collateral damage.”
The problem is that the agenda Mitt Romney has laid out is essentially the same as Bain’s mission, but on a bigger scale: to take over a distressed economy in such a way as to create wealth for the already wealthy, regardless of the collateral damage.
Romney showed us his priorities with a budget that includes a 20% “across-the-board” tax cut that essentially requires across-the-board cuts to programs that serve and support the poor, as well as the working- and middle-classes. Romney showed us his priorities with a budget that preserves his 15% tax rate on capital gains and dividends, eliminate taxes on investment income for those earning more than $200,000 per year, and lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%.
Romney showed us what and whom he is willing to sacrifice, with a budget that would require cutting non-defense programs by $637 billion in 2016 alone, and $6.5 trillion between 2014 and 2021. Romney showed us who and what he is willing to sacrifice with a budget that would shred the safety net, throwing 10 million off the benefit rolls for food stamps, and leave 30 million without health care coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act.
Romney showed us what and whom he is willing to sacrifice with his embrace of Paul Ryan’s budget. Romney showed us what and whom he is willing to sacrifice with his support of a budget that would end Medicare as we know it, and render America itself unrecognizable.
The Obama campaign is betting that voters will ask themselves if they want a president who will do for the economy what Mitt Romney did for the companies in Bain’s portfolio, not to mention the people who worked for those companies; people much like themselves, who were the “collateral damage” of Bain’s business of building wealth for the already-wealthy.
The bad news for Romney, Bouie notes, is that so far this looks like a winning bet for Obama, as it was for Ted Kennedy.
The bad news, however, is that Obama has space for his message; according to NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 71 percent say that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who says “America is better off when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same rules,” and 76 percent say that they are more likely to vote for someone who promises to “fight for balance and fairness and encourage the investments needed to grow our economy and strengthen the middle class.” This is the core of Obama’s message, and one of the themes highlighted in his attack on Bain Capital.
It looks like the Man from Bain is back. The truth is, he never left. Obama and the Democrats have every reason to make sure he sticks around for the duration of the campaign.