The Bain of Romney’s Existence
According to the Mitt Romney playbook, things were not supposed to go like this. The Romney strategy for the 2012 U.S. presidential race was fairly simple: Make the election a referendum on the tenure of President Barack Obama, especially his economic record. That may still happen, but somewhere along the road in recent weeks the Romney campaign has gotten off-track and now finds itself on the defensive after a fresh wave of attack ads from the Obama camp.
The Obama attacks on Romney focus on two issues: First, Mitt Romney’s record as a businessman and head of the Bain Capital investment company in the years before he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. And second, the issue of Romney’s tax returns and why he won’t release more than the two years he has already promised. The 2010 returns have already been released and they expect to release this year’s returns sometime in the next several weeks.
On Romney’s business background, the Obama campaign has copied a page from the George W. Bush re-election campaign of 2004, and that is to define your opponent for the public before he or she has the chance to do it themselves. This paid great dividends for the Bush re-election effort in 2004 when the so-called “Swift boat” attack ads went after Democratic candidate John Kerry over his supposed strength — his naval service during the Vietnam War. The ads began running months before the election and questioned Kerry’s war record to the point that it allowed the Bush campaign to make Kerry’s character and trustworthiness an issue in the general election match-up that November.
The Obama campaign is now attacking Romney on what is supposedly his greatest strength, his record as a businessman and head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm he founded in the mid-1980’s that was successful and generated high returns for its investors. Part of the Obama critique is that some of the companies Bain bought and sold wound up outsourcing some U.S. jobs and some wound up in bankruptcy. Romney has claimed that during his tenure at Bain many more jobs were created than were lost.
Romney says his role at the company changed in 1999 after he was tapped to manage the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah and that he had no major active role at Bain after February of 1999.
But filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate Romney was still listed on official papers as Bain’s chief executive officer, president, “controlling person” and “sole shareholder.” The Obama campaign has seized on the discrepancy and put Romney on the defensive, including on the Sunday network television talk shows. One immediate impact of all this is that it keeps the Romney campaign from focusing on what it wants, which is President Obama’s economic record. The Romney campaign is now trying to move beyond the Bain discussion and will keep trying over the next several days.
The Taxman Cometh
The other issue of attack on Romney is his reluctance to release multiple years of his income tax returns. He has released his 2010 returns and the 2011 returns are supposed to come within a month or so. But so far Romney is holding fast to his stance that he should not have to release any more information than that, adding in one interview that he doesn’t want to provide the other side with “opposition research.”
Well, right now the issue is working to the president’s benefit. So much so that some prominent conservative pundits and the Republican governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, are urging Romney to release the tax records to put the issue to rest.
What’s surprising here is that some of the conservative talking heads have said they believe the Romney camp is not releasing the tax returns because they think he has something to hide. They don’t say what that might be and the Romney campaign is quick to push back on that, saying he has no obligation to release anything beyond the two years he has already agreed to.
But the expectation here is that the Republican pressure on Romney to release more of his tax records will only increase in the weeks ahead and the Obama campaign will try to exploit it as a way of keeping the focus on Romney’s background and wealth, and not on the president’s economic record.
Democrats believe one way the president can win this year is by making the election in November a choice between two very different candidates, and not simply a referendum on President Obama’s time in office.
Democratic strategists know that it would too easy for many undecided voters to simply turn thumbs-down on the president if they look simply at where the economy is now and where Mr. Obama promised it would be when he first took office. So they believe they have little choice but to go after Romney’s core selling point that he is an experienced businessman who has the smarts to fix the economy and bring back jobs.
Some Republicans are alarmed at the success the Democrats have had recently in putting the Romney campaign on the defensive. But they also caution that the election is still months away and that Romney and his allies have tens of millions of dollars yet to spend to go after the president and his economic record.
But Republicans well remember the lessons from the 2004 campaign when Bush allies went after John Kerry with the “Swift Boat” attack ads and Kerry seemed almost dismissive at first, confident that no one would take the attacks seriously. Well, those attacks did help to undermine Kerry to an extent and make him an unpalatable alternative to Mr. Bush in the eyes of some swing voters who were at least considering the Democrat in 2004.
And now Democrats are hoping to give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine this year, though most analysts caution it is too early to know whether the attacks over Bain and tax returns will be effective or not.