Right on schedule, the Bain of Mitt Romney’s existence is back. We knew it would be.Taking a page from the Karl Rove playbook, President Obama is taking aim at his opponent’s supposed strength (job creator) with a new TV ad that seeks to redefine it as a weakness (vulture capitalist). The Obama campaign strategy is obvious. Roughly one in three Americans has yet to form an opinion of Romney, according to a new national poll, so this is the opportune time for Obama to shape that opinion on his own terms.
It’s the time-honored game: Define your opponent unfavorably before he can favorably define himself. And Team Obama is planning to air this two-minute ad on the network news shows tomorrow night in key swing states – Pennsylvania, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia – which tells us plenty about the importance and urgency of this effort. We may not know until November 6 whether the private equity company is truly Romney’s albatross (he ran Bain for 15 years), but, at minimum, Obama has lots of material to work with.After all, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry plowed the ground for Obama during the primaries. A scant four months ago, they painted Romney as an entitled rich guy who worked the dark side of capitalism, swooping in on shaky companies and reaping huge profits for his Bain Capital investors, often at the expense of the working stiffs in his employ. But this portrait of Romney actually dates back to 2008, when Mike Huckabee (who’s now being touted in some quarters as a Romney running mate) unleashed a critique of Romney and Bain that’s just as harsh as anything in the Obama campaign ad.”There are a lot of people who lost their jobs when his company took over, restructure a company, lay a lot of people off,” said Huckabee. “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 fund and a paycheck. If that’s the ‘turnaround,’ a lot of Americans would not want to see their lives turned around like that.”The Obama ads (the two-minute version for TV, a six-minute version for the web) tell the tale of GST Steel, a Missouri company obtained by Bain in 1993. Eight years later, GST wound up in bankruptcy, 750 people lost their jobs, and Bain’s investors made $12 million. On camera, the cashiered workers are still ticked off. One says of Bain, “It was like a vampire, they came in and sucked the life out of us.” Another says, “Those (Bain) guys were all rich, they all have more money than they’ll ever spend. Yet they didn’t have the money to take care of the very people that made the money for them.”The TV ad’s attack theme is simplistic in some respects – the domestic steel industry had all kinds of problems during the ’90s, notably competition from cheaper imported steel – and the ad doesn’t mention that by the time GST went belly up in 2001, Romney was no longer running Bain’s day-to-day operations. On the other hand, he did have a sweet deal with Bain to keep dipping his snout in the money trough.The Obama ad contends Romney is a “job destroyer,” and that label could resonate if only because Romney has done a poor job of proving that he was a job creator. During the primaries, he claimed that he had created “100,000” “net-net” jobs during his long Bain tenure. He has since Etch a Sketched that number. Today he claims that he created “thousands” of jobs. Indeed, the Romney campaign has never been able to come up with credible numbers for any of its job claims, for one simple reason: Bain didn’t tally job-creation stats, because job creation was never its mission in the first place. As Bain alum Marc Woplow, a former Romney partner, remarked last winter, “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.”And that’s what the Obama strategy is really about. They want to define this election as a choice between a guy who would use government to help struggling middle- and lower-income Americans during tough economic times – and a guy who spent his business career exploiting tough economic times, and exploiting workers, in order to reap huge profits for those at the top of the heap.The Obama team knows that the sour economy is its chief political vulnerability; it can ill afford to have Romney successfully paint himself as an economic savior; hence the strategy to undercut his perceived credentials, to paint him as a “vampire.” It’s not a particularly substantive strategy – there is nothing in the Obama platform that would protect future workers from the manipulations of private equity firms like Bain – but, as Republicans well know from their own success stories, attacking an opponent’s persona can be an effective political weapon.The Obama attack strategy may well resonate with Americans of populist bent who view private equity firms as rapacious predators, who recognize that free-market capitalism can’t be allowed to run amok at the expense of the underdogs. And there’s already ample evidence that Romney, befitting his Bain pedigree, intends to put his thumb on the scale for the overdogs; in his economic plan, he seeks to lower tax rates for the rich and perpetuate the deregulation credo that helped trigger the economic crash.Fortunately for Romney, the slow recovery from the crash is keeping him in play. Obama’s initial buy for the Bain TV ad is reportedly no more than $100,000. The president’s campaign will need to pony up considerably more money if it hopes to make Bain a byword for evil in the minds of swing voters who, only now, are beginning to tune in…but wait, no problem! An Obama-friendly Super PAC is ponying up nearly eight times more money to put its own Bain ad on the air over the next week. It’s amazing, these coincidences of non-coordination.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1