Romney’s Bain and its place in the 2012 campaign

Coming at a time when the Romney and Obama campaigns have scuffled over details about Mitt Romney’s work with Bain capital, this campaign ad has stunned political observers.

Why have people found it so striking?

Because Romney’s Bain matters — for two reasons.

One reason has to do with the details about Romney’s life. These are key but also feed into the second element.

And what are those details?

While Romney served as Governor of Massachusetts, he says little about it, likely because his biggest accomplishment was passing health care reform. While that reform is working exceedingly well — over 98% have insurance coverage — its approach is a lot like Obamacare. Even as Obamacare has gotten more popular, Romney took the position that he would repeal it and can’t tout Romneycare.

Thus Romney stresses his business experience as a credential for president, saying it gives him special insight into understanding the economy.

Starting in the primary campaign, Romney has been hit by criticisms of the what his company, Bain Capital, did.  In some cases, Bain followed a predatory model, adding debt to balance sheets, and walking away with profits, as the business failed. Bain took workers’ pension funds and monies for future health expenses, leaving them without these assets and their jobs.

As the Obama campaign raised these issues, Romney has claimed that he had nothing to do with those cases. Romney said he wasn’t at Bain when they happened, having gone off in early 1999 to run the Winter Olympics in Utah.

However, it’s undisputed that Romney maintained legal control of Bain, as CEO, president and sole stockholder. Given Romney’s status, he could have stopped anything the company was doing if he disapproved. Moreover, Romney made statements, about part-time involvement in the business. There were representations under oath when he was running for governor.

Here’s a very clear timetable of Bain details.

At the same time, other reports raise questions about Romney’s personal investments and accounts, such as funds moved to the Cayman islands, and bank accounts in Switzerland. And Romney hasn’t clarified these, nor released his tax returns beyond a single year, leading even conservatives to wonder what’s in them that’s so potentially damaging.  The stories keep coming on these, and on Bain’s ways of operating so they privatized profits and socialized losses.

These details matter on their own, as Americans may like or dislike what they learn. It also matters if it turns out Romney has been truthful and forthcoming. But all of this matters for another reason.

The Bain details, along with information about Romney’s taxes and investments, are building a picture of the man. If this was fiction, we’d be talking about character development and narrative.

Romney never spent time during the primary building a well-rounded picture of himself. Now his image is open to definition.

A key part of campaigns involves defining oneself and defining one’s opponent. What Romney did not do for himself, the Obama campaign is doing, based in ongoing press reports.

The Obama campaign is taking those details and creating the broader picture.

That’s what their ad does. And one part of it makes it clear that it doesn’t matter when Romney actually managed Bain.  The campaign calls the ad “Firms” and one message is about “Romney’s firms” outsourcing.

Even if Romney didn’t make the outsourcing decisions, they were done by “Romney’s firms.”

Denying responsibility looks silly and undermines Romney’s claims that he is a real leader.

Meanwhile, public opinion is shifting. While Romney had advantages over Obama in questions asking about who would be best in addressing the economy, that has slipped. Now Obama is ahead or tied in virtually all recent polls.

Next the Obama administration will continue with the message that the ad ends with — Mitt Romney’s not the solution. He’s the problem. — and will tie even more up in their narrative.

This will include the policies Romney has pursued, in contrast to Obama’s economic vision, as well as quotes from Romney that undercut his earlier statements on Bain and his image as a business leader that can fix America’s economy.

By the way, the below response from the Romney campaign is likely far less effective. Obama has strong leads in questions about which candidate is on the side of the middle class.  The ad is very unlikely to undermine that reputation because it isn’t build on a foundation laid by the campaign and facts that have been well-developed already.

And it suggests, once again, that the campaign is reactive. If the Obama campaign has an ad with Romney singing, the Romney campaign will have one with Obama singing.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.