Clear and present danger

    King of Bain is the anti-Romney stink bomb that Obama operatives would have lovingly assembled if Romney’s Republican enemies hadn’t done it first.Much of the film is over-the-top agitprop, particularly the visuals of cash-stuffed suitcases and Mitt’s sumptuous summer homes, but there’s no way Team Romney can spin away the Bain pain. The laid-off workers speak for themselves on camera. They’re the people who lost out in the game of capitalist roulette, while Romney and his Bain Capital partners reaped huge financial rewards.And, politically speaking, those blue-collar folks are a lot like the millions of downscale workers who have tilted Republican in recent national elections. Mitt Romney certainly doesn’t want those key voters to view him as a latter-day incarnate of Gordon Gekko.
    So Romney is road-testing a new response to the Bain flap, insisting in South Carolina yesterday that he truly and sincerely feels the pain of those who have been unable to partake in the bounty of capitalism. In his words, “Any time a job is lost, it’s a tragedy. For the family, for the individual who loses his job, it’s just devastating.”Wow, that’s a big tonal recalibration. Just days ago, he was dismissing his Bain critics as “desperate,” and contending that those who complain about economic unfairness are merely motivated by “envy.” That spin didn’t seem to work. Hence the shift from heartless mode to empathy mode. Plus, he’s now in booster mode – witness the new Romney video touting workers who have been helped by Bain. And why do you suppose he keeps tweaking his responses? Because he and his advisers fear that the anti-Bain film – and the new TV ads that excerpt the film – will embed the Bain issue as a clear and present danger to the Romney campaign.Which it is, of course. Romney touts his private-sector experience as proof that he knows how to create jobs, and he habitually claims (without substantiation) to have created “100,000” “net-net” jobs during his ’90s Bain tenure. The last thing he needed (especially from Republican rivals) was a counter-narrative which paints him as a one percenter, an entitled rich guy who traversed the dark side of capitalism, turning fat profits for his Bain investors at the expense of the working stiffs.Which is what he did, of course. If Bain’s efforts happened to benefit the workers, fine. If there was trickle-down bounty, fine. But Bain had other priorities. As Marc Woplow, a former Romney partner, told the Los Angeles Times last month: “I never thought of what I do for a living as job creation. The primary goal of private equity is to create wealth for your investors.”The Republican establishment doesn’t like to hear this kind of talk uttered out loud. Rushing to defend Romney this week, it wants to squelch any suggestion that free enterprise is not intrinsically wonderful 100 percent of the time. The party regulars are very upset with Newt Gingrich, for example, because Newt is voicing blasphemies like this: “I think there’s a real difference between people who believe in the free market – and people who go around, take financial advantage, loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns, people on unemployment.” (Hilariously, John McCain and Mike Huckabee have joined the defense of Romney and Bain – despite the fact that both guys attacked Romney and Bain during the ’08 campaign. Here’s the Huck, four winters ago: “There are a lot of people who lost their jobs when his company would take over, restructure a company, lay a lot of people off. Lot of times, the CEOs and the people at the top got some pretty huge bonuses and made a lot of money. A lot of people went home without a pension and a paycheck…If that’s the ‘turnaround,’ a lot of Americans would not want to see their lives turned around like that.”)Most importantly, the GOP establishment wants to ensure that downscale voters continue to support the party that traditionally does its utmost to line the pockets of the rich. What’s scary about the Bain issue is that it threatens to drive a wedge between the rich Republican elite (which counts Romney as a prominent member), and the working folks who are well aware of the ever-widening income chasm between the rich and everyone else. (A working stiff in the new TV ad: “Mitt Romney and them guys, they don’t care who I am.”) Indeed, Romney didn’t help matters this week when he said that the issue of economic inequality should only be discussed in “quiet rooms.”)Bain may not hurt Romney in the short-run primaries, but even the New Hampshire exit polls showed that his support was strongest in the top income brackets and that it was weakest in the lower brackets. He thus seems vulnerable to further populist attacks, and we can assume that the Obama team is examining every facet of the current intramural episode. Even if Gingrich and his fellow Bain-basher, Rick Perry, soon fall silent on this issue, it will likely flare anew when the swing voters are up for grabs. The autumn campaign is likely to feature a broad debate about economic unfairness and the dark side of capitalism. Romney’s wishes notwithstanding, that discussion can no longer be confined to “quiet rooms.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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