Saturday, July 14, 2012

Return of the Bain Attacks

Last month, Barack Obama's campaign essentially abandoned its attack line against Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney. The attacks against Bain had fizzled because they were delivered as attacks against private equity firms in general. Prominent Democrats rejected the idea of attacking private equity and, as in the Republican primary, Romney was able to defend himself by trumpeting Bain's successes.

Now the attacks against Bain have returned in a new, more complicated form. The new attacks turned out to be part clever, part foolish, and partially accelerated by an unforced error on Romney's part. Obama's new angle of attack focuses on when precisely Romney "left" Bain. The basic facts are not in dispute; independent fact-checkers and Bain leaders present at the time (including some current Obama supporters) all confirm Romney's timeline: In early 1999, Romney stopped working at Bain and started working full-time to organize the 2002 Olympics. Although Romney's responsibilities at Bain were transferred to other managers, Romney maintained his ownership of the company for a few more years--including the title of CEO. Thus, while Romney was no longer physically present or making managerial decisions, his name continued to appear on SEC filings for the company.

On its own, this timeline has little relevance to anything--and that is where the "clever" portion of the Obama campaign's attacks comes in. Romney's political opponents have always attacked Bain by focusing on Bain's failures, and Romney defended himself by pointing to its greater successes. But Romney has also occasionally defended himself by absolving himself from any bad decisions made by Bain after his departure in early 1999. Now, the Obama campaign points out that Romney was still owner and CEO of the company, and was thus responsible for everything that occurred there.

It is difficult for voters to relate to the idea that someone owns a company but is no longer present. As Obama pointed out, voters think that an owner-CEO must still be responsible for the decisions made by the company. When Romney says he "left" Bain in early 1999, voters expect a more complete break.

The "foolish" part of Obama's attacks came in the form of an overreach: They suggested that if Romney was not the owner and CEO of the company as reported in SEC filings, it would be a felony to falsely report such. No one, including Romney himself, ever disputed that he held onto his ownership interest in Bain for a few years after he went to work for the Olympics in early 1999. Therefore, no one actually believes Romney committed a felony. The charge is extreme to the point of absurdity, and were the Romney campaign ever to suggest that Obama is a felon, they would undoubtedly be accused of racism.

If the Romney campaign released a cogent, convincing written statement explaining this, perhaps the new Bain attacks would have fizzled as well. This is where the "unforced error" portion comes into play. With the facts on their side, the Romney campaign sensed that Obama overreached. They probably felt it was important to hit back hard to show that they are tough--and Romney himself was probably quite offended by the accusations made against him. On Friday, Romney responded by participating in as many TV news interviews as he could, to address the situation.

By jumping directly into the fray, Romney made the new Bain attacks even more prominent in the media than they were before. Since he had not previously participated in many interviews this campaign season, he also appeared to endorse the idea that the timing of his Bain departure is important in some way. The forum was also wrong: By participating in interviews with Obama-supporting journalists, rather than releasing a written statement (or simply appearing for a public statement), he allowed the dynamic to shift: Instead of Romney attacking Obama for his overreach, he allowed the journalists to put him on the defensive as they cross-examined him about Bain.

While the Bain timeline is occasionally used by Romney as a defense to bad Bain decisions made after early 1999, Romney's primary interest in defending the timeline is that it's the truth. However, in the context of Obama's attacks, defending the timeline appears to observers as a way to disassociate himself from Bain. That reinforces Obama's premise that Bain is a weakness rather than an asset. In the past, Romney would defend Bain with a counter-punch focusing on Bain's successes. Defense of a timeline can't involve such a counter-punch; instead, it can only involve the facts about Romney leaving a company but still owning it and having the title of CEO. Again, these are facts to which voters will have great difficulty relating.

Given the lack of controversy about the facts surrounding Romney's timeline, Obama's attacks had little substance. Obama erred by overreaching, but Romney played into Obama's hand through the unforced error of lending weight to the attacks' importance. This may be considered the first time Romney's campaign has made a serious blunder during the general election campaign.