President Obama is playing the Bain card, big time.
It was only a matter of time before his reelection campaign savaged Mitt Romney over job losses caused by the venture capital firm he once headed. This was hardly a deeply held secret. After all, Ted Kennedy went after Bain Capital when he defeated Romney in 1994. And some of Romney’s Republican rivals, notably Newt Gingrich, ripped him earlier this year over the devastation that Bain visited on some of the companies it acquired.
Obama’s two-minute Web ad is featured on a new site, RomneyEconomics.com, which makes clear that the president plans to make Bain a centerpiece of his assault on Romney. This might have been held back for a Labor Day attack. By unleashing it in May, the Obama team is signaling that it wants to define Romney now, while his public image is still gauzy, rather than wait until attitudes have hardened in the fall.
In a call with reporters on Monday, Obama campaign official Stephanie Cutter said that Romney "walked away with millions, and workers were left without jobs, without pensions, without health care." She said the campaign will highlight more companies damaged by Bain in the coming weeks.
There are two weak spots in the Bain-bashing strategy. One is that voters may care less about what Romney did as a businessman two decades ago than the weak economy the president has presided over for the last 3-1/2 years. The other is that Romney can also point to successful takeovers at Bain that created jobs.
“We welcome the Obama campaign’s attempt to pivot back to jobs and a discussion of their failed record,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul e-mailed this morning. “Mitt Romney helped create more jobs in his private sector experience and more jobs as governor of Massachusetts than President Obama has for the entire nation.”
The Obama ad draws its power from the focus on a few of the 750 former employees at Kansas City’s GST Steel, who were tossed out on the street through no fault of their own. The company declared bankruptcy after Romney’s outfit bought it in 1993, steelworkers were denied full pension and health insurance, and the feds had to bail out the pension plan.
“It’s like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us,” says one worker who lost his job.
“It’s like watching an old friend bleed to death,” says another.
The video cuts between interviews with such workers and clips of Romney on the campaign trial, saying he knows what makes jobs come and go.
On the conference call, laid-off GST worker Joe Soptic said Bain had turned the steel plant into a "sweatshop," saying "we had to fight for earplugs, respirators we needed to be safe." After he lost his job, Soptic said, his wife developed lung cancer and had to go to a county hospital to die because he no longer had health insurance.
The Republican candidate’s campaign points out that the bankruptcy took place in 2001, two years after Romney left Bain. Romney has taken “personal responsibility” for buying GST Steel but said he did not manage the company.
Romney’s business acumen is at the heart of his candidacy. His job was to take over distressed companies in ways that created wealth for Bain, regardless of the collateral damage. If Obama operatives can paint him as a heartless businessman, they will have badly damaged his brand—unless, of course, it turns out that voters are more focused on who can create jobs in the next four years than on the war stories of the past.