Sunday, June 10, 2012

Obama's Bain Capital Attacks Fizzle

The first attacks rolled out by Barack Obama's campaign this season criticized the business practices of Bain Capital, an investment firm formerly head by Mitt Romney. These attacks should be familiar to those who followed the Republican primary; Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry both painted Romney as a "vulture capitalist" who acquired companies and made a quick profit by firing the employees. Obama's attacks essentially reiterated these claims.

During the Republican primary, the idea of demonizing Bain Capital appealed to some of Romney's rivals because the attacks undermined Romney's central theme: Romney claimed to have economic expertise, and claimed to be the candidate who best knew how to create jobs. But the attacks against Bain fizzled quickly during the primary and were abandoned after only a couple weeks, never to return. The Bain attacks failed for two reasons. First, they were perceived as attacks from the left--attacks against capitalism. Even some of Romney's enemies, like Rush Limbaugh, denounced the attacks. Second, Romney was able to defend himself by pointing out that he was largely successful in saving companies while at Bain. Romney claimed that while some companies failed, overall Bain was able to generate thousands of jobs.

As before, the present attacks against Bain have fizzled--for now. But why? Unlike Romney's Republican rivals, Obama has no need to position himself to the right of Romney, so attacking from the left shouldn't be a problem. Therefore, the answer must be found in the other reason the Bain attacks failed during the primary season: Overall, Romney's business record is one of creating jobs, not destroying them.

The other big problem Obama faced is that attacks against Bain are easily interpreted as attacks against private equity firms--the practice of outside companies buying a failing business and trying to fix it to make a profit. After Obama unveiled the Bain attacks, prominent Democrats like Bill Clinton and Newark mayor Cory Booker (among others) balked, expressing a positive view of private equity firms in general. During an interview, Clinton used the word "sterling" to describe Romney's business experience. These deviations from the official line were deeply embarrassing to the Obama campaign.

Should Obama abandon attacks against Bain? Not quite. While he must avoid broadening the scope of his attacks to encompass all private equity firms, Obama can continue to smear Romney by pointing out each of Bain's failures during Romney's tenure. This, however, is a tactic rather than a strategy. In other words, the Bain attacks should be one clod of dirt among many to throw at Romney.

Elephant Watcher has determined that Obama's chances of winning the election are greatest if voters believe Romney would be a return to the economic policies of George W. Bush. Earlier, we explained this "Old" vs. "Current" vs. "New" dynamic. The Bain attacks are not sufficient to convince voters that Romney is too incompetent, unqualified, or inexperienced to fix the economy. Rather, Obama must persuade voters that Romney simply has the wrong ideas--the same ideas that Bush had.

So far, the Obama campaign has failed to focus its efforts in that direction. This may be because they think the idea of "Bush's third term" was worn out by its use against John McCain in 2008. Despite its status as something of a cliché, and despite the fact that Romney doesn't remind people of Bush, it remains the best strategy available to Obama at the moment. Elephant Watcher believes that the Obama campaign will eventually come to realize this, and will proceed accordingly. In fact, Obama may even benefit from an obvious failure of alternate attack plans, to the extent that they encourage him to pursue the proper one. Still, the burden is on Obama to carry out the attack.