David Frum

07.14.12

Bain: The Debate You Have When You Don't Have Ideas

In my column for the National Post, I explain my frustration with attacking Romney for his time at Bain Capital:

This week’s U.S. presidential drama all turns on — contain your excitement — Mitt Romney’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Obama campaign charges that those filings prove Romney a felon or a liar.

The Romney campaign has fired back with an “I’m Mitt Romney and I approved this message” ad calling President Obama a liar in turn.

You’d call these charges and counter-charges a terrible distraction — if (but only if) either campaign had any serious ideas about how to pull the United States out of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. But since neither does, let the games begin.

The story begins back in the 1990s. After losing a 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts to Ted Kennedy, Mitt Romney returned to his old company, Bain Capital, to make more money. Over the next five years, Romney flourished as never before, turning his big fortune into a huge fortune.

But then came another political opportunity. In 1999, the organizers of the Salt Lake City winter Olympics approached Romney. The games were in trouble. Would he help? Romney resigned his job at Bain and moved to Utah.

But it’s not so easy to wrap up a big enterprise like Bain. For three years afterward, Romney continued to sign SEC disclosure forms listing himself as Bain’s CEO and 100% shareholder. He also continued to draw a salary from Bain of at least $100,000 until he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002.

Almost as soon as Romney ended his day-to-day role at Bain, the dot-com boom crashed and the economy went into recession. Many Bain enterprises got into trouble. Factories were closed. Workers were fired. Jobs were moved overseas. When the Obama campaign attacks Romney’s Bain record, most of the specific cases are drawn from this 2000-2002 period.

These attacks upon the Romney record have drawn blood. Over the past 20 years, the Republican base has narrowed. Republicans win two-thirds of the vote among whites without a college degree. Republicans lose almost everywhere else.

As it happens, whites without a college degree are the most alienated of all measured voting blocs. Ask them whether they expect to see their standard of living improve over the next 10 years — whether they expect their children to enjoy a better future — and they answer more pessimistically than blacks or Hispanics, even though those two groups have suffered worst in the long recession since 2007.

Non-college whites may dislike Barack Obama, but they don’t like corporate raiders either. In the Republican primaries of both 2008 and 2012, Romney consistently lost among Republicans earning less than $100,000 per year. (Back in 2008, Romney’s populist rival Mike Huckabee quipped, “People want to vote for somebody who reminds them of the guy they work with — not the guy who laid them off.”)

Knowing that, the Romney campaign has strenuously repudiated any Romney responsibility for Bain’s actions in 2000-2002. And when the Obama campaign insisted otherwise, the Romney campaign took the bold step of releasing an ad from the campaign itself — not some allegedly uncoordinated SuperPAC — that used the word “liar.”

That was Thursday. Bad luck for them, Thursday was also the day that the Boston Globe posted a big investigation itemizing all the many, many forms that Romney had signed on Bain’s behalf after his 1999 departure.

Click here to read the full column.