ROMNEY

01.12.12

Romney Feeling Bain Pain

A burgeoning debate about his takeover firm threatens to define his candidacy.

Has Mitt Romney weathered the Bain-bashing, or have his days as a corporate takeover artist come to define him?

The leading Republican critics, Newt Gingrich (“rich people figuring out clever ways to loot a company”) and Rick Perry (“vultures…sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass”), seem to be toning things down in the face of a conservative backlash from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. But the debate over whether Romney’s record as a businessman continues to rage, threatening to tarnish his chief credential for the presidency.

It’s almost like John Kerry having to defend his Vietnam War medals, a development that could turn Romney’s greatest strength—the notion that he can use his boardroom skills to fix the economy—into a potential weakness. Not that any of this is exactly new. When Romney ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Democrats ran ads featuring some of the hundreds of workers who lost their jobs at American Pad and Paper after Bain Capital took over the firm two years earlier. In fact, one of them, Randy Johnson, recently spoke to ABC’s Brian Ross, saying: “It was really one of the worst things I think I've had to deal with, because people … were at my desk crying, 'What do I do? I don't have a good college education… I just wanted to get to retirement…Families were devastated.”

Romney has tried several defenses, none of which have gotten traction. He’s touted Bain success stories like Staples (though some of its 100,000 jobs were added after he left the company). He’s likened Bain’s investments in companies that shed jobs to President Obama’s auto bailout, since some of the car companies shrunk as well. Now he’s retreated to conflating his past job with capitalism itself, accusing critics of an “assault on free enterprise.” Of course, Bain did what such companies are supposed to do: take over ailing companies, cut costs and slash jobs if necessary, and try to squeeze profit from them. That’s the game. Up close, it can look ugly. But Romney can’t run away from it.

In fact, says Fred Barnes in the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Romney bears some of the blame for the awkward situation. Candidates for president normally build their campaigns on a big idea. Mr. Gingrich's is that he would crush Mr. Obama in debates and win the election. Mr. Perry's is that he would extend the economic success of Texas to the entire nation. Mr. Romney's is himself, the man whose skill at economic revival was on display at Bain. This is an invitation to attacks. What Mr. Romney needs is a bigger idea to deflect attention from Bain.”

He also needs to deflect attention from such critics as Sarah Palin, who used a Sean Hannity appearance to call on Mitt to release his tax returns and added: “Governor Romney has claimed to have created 100,000 jobs at Bain, and people are wanting to know: is there proof?”

Something tells me Romney isn’t Palin’s first choice for the nomination.

The downside of the Bain saga is that it’s closed and complicated. As Politico’s Keach Hagey observes, “For most business stories — and certainly those dealing with public companies — reporters would have other ways of obtaining information besides being spoon fed by the company itself. But Bain has blocked many of the avenues that would enable reporters to get information on their own, declining to give The Wall Street Journal a list of the companies it has invested in (‘citing privacy reasons’) or even any information about when its involvement with its investments ended.”

And, she notes, “it’s a political story that requires financial reporting expertise. From a scan of bylines, it appears that most, but not all, outlets that have financial expertise don’t tend to put those reporters on the Bain story.” So much more fun writing about the horse race.

It’s hard to assess the damage right now. Romney won big in New Hampshire, even though the Bain story dominated the last 48 hours. One school of thought says his Republican rivals have done him an inadvertent favor by hauling out the issue now, which will make it seem like old news by the time the Democrats start firing their heavy artillery in the fall. But it seems more likely that destroying jobs at Bain will become an indelible part of Romney’s resume—one that voters will have to weigh as part of the package.