Return of the King of Bain
Back in January, Newt Gingrich did something so craven and bloodless, it sent shockwaves across the already craven, bloodless world of presidential politics: He cribbed a line of attack from liberal lion Ted Kennedy.
Kennedy had used Romney’s career as a buyout artist to bludgeon Romney during their 1994 Senate race. Being the good capitalists that they are, a team of Republican media operatives watched Romney running around trying to get elected president by talking up his business chops, and they sensed a business opportunity. They bought an old opposition research folder on Romney, and used it to produce, on spec, a feature-length film attacking Romney’s career at Bain Capital. A super PAC allied with Gingrich wound up buying the King of Bain film. Gingrich’s PAC carpet bombed the Romney campaign with ads featuring tearful workers who had lost their jobs and pensions following Bain takeovers. The attack ads, and the film they were culled from, were panned as being manipulative and only half truthful. They were also devastatingly effective, handing Gingrich a big win in the South Carolina primary, and dragging Romney into a protracted and punishing primary season battle.
At the time, Republican operatives on both sides of the Romney attacks expressed hope that, by airing in January attack lines that Democrats would surely employ before November, they could inoculate Romney against vulture capitalist charges. Jason Killian Meath, who directed Gingrich’s King of Bain film, told the New Yorker, “All I did was steal a nuclear weapon from David Axelrod, brought it over to our side, dissected it, and dismantled it.” Meath has subsequently fallen in line behind Romney.
Even though Romney dispatched Gingrich and Rick Santorum, he never effectively deflected Kennedy-style attacks on his Bain career; he won the GOP primaries, in large part, by overwhelming second-class politicians with blitzes of negative advertising. And now, as expected, Axelrod and the Obama campaign have come knocking.
In a campaign email announcing the new ad, and the launch of the attack website RomneyEconomics.com, the Obama campaign alleged that, “In a career of buying and selling companies, Romney’s pattern was to reap quick profits for himself and his investors, but often at the expense of workers and communities.” It added, “It’s our job to let people know the truth about Romney’s record, and what it says about the economic vision and values he would bring to the presidency.”
The conservative opinion pages have leapt to Romney’s defense. The National Review says Romney is not the bloodsucking capitalist Team Obama paints him as, but merely a really, really rich guy trying to do good while making a few bucks but not always succeeding because of greedy unions. A Wall Street Journal editorial notes that the Obama campaign launched the attack on private equity’s most famous face on the same day that he president attended a fundraiser hosted by another private equity titan, Tony James of the Blackstone Group.
The Washington Post says the current skirmish over Bain illustrates how the battle to define capitalism will be fought in the general election. New York magazine, which dove deep into Romney’s career at Bain this past fall, has a similar take. The magazine’s profile noted that both sides of the Bain debate are correct — the firm helped unleash a new era of productivity in American business, and the benefits of that new productivity largely flowed into the hands of a few wealthy capitalists. Yesterday, New York’s Jonathan Chait argued that attacks on Bain are really attacks on income inequality. “The Republican position is that the rise in inequality is perfectly fine, as it signals rising rewards accruing to those who have justly earned them,” he writes.
It’s that philosophy — not corporate profits, per se — that the Obama campaign is beginning to hammer away at. “In Romney’s world,” the Obama campaign said yesterday, “CEOs and wealthy investors prosper by any means they can get away with, even when that means companies fail and workers are left behind. Two sets of rules — one for people like him, another for the rest of us.” If Romney can’t muster a better rebuttal than he did in January, November is going to feel like an eternity away.
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