Punditry is a strange business. On the one hand, many television pundits—especially those who also work as reporters—are supposed to be objective. On the other hand, they’re supposed to offer their opinions.
“Objective” pundits are like referees terrified of alienating either side. Their lives get easier when members of one team admit that the call should go the other way. That’s what Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, and now Bill Clinton have done with their critiques of the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital. Now that pundits have cover to critique Obama’s strategy too, the conventional wisdom has quickly congealed: attacking Bain was stupid.
I disagree. Obama has to attack Romney hard: the economy simply isn’t good enough for him to mount a 1984-style “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” campaign. Romney’s central narrative is that he’s a businessman who knows how to fix the economy. Yes, the Obama campaign can attack him as a flip-flopper; they can attack his record as governor of Massachusetts; they can call him a right-wing extremist (although attacks Nos. 1 and 3 contradict each other).
But since none of these attacks challenges Romney’s core claim, their value is limited. It’s possible, for example, to imagine a situation in which the Obama campaign effectively uses issues like abortion, gay marriage, and health care to convince Americans that Romney lacks core convictions (many probably believe that already), but that belief doesn’t cripple Romney, because voters actually like the idea of a nonideological problem solver willing to do whatever it takes to end the economic pain. It’s worth remembering that while the Bush campaign did weaken John Kerry with its flip-flop attacks in 2004, those attacks alone would never have been enough had the Swift-Boaters not cast doubt upon Kerry’s core message: that because of his Vietnam heroism, he could be trusted on national security in a post–Sept. 11 world.
There was also good reason to believe the Bain attacks might work. No matter what conservatives say, presidential campaigns often appeal to class resentment. The right has been particularly effective at it. Think about the Bush campaign’s ad showing Kerry windsurfing. Or Karl Rove’s showing Obama surrounded by celebrities. Asked how he would have run against his own candidate in 1988, George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, said he would have shown ads featuring Bush on his private tennis court alongside images of his waterfront mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine, before having the narrator intone: “No wonder he wants to cut capital gains taxes on the wealthy.”
There’s a reason Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum went after Bain: because Romney’s super-rich, out-of-touch image was hurting him among white, working-class voters. And as The New Republic’s Alex MacGillis has shown, Ted Kennedy’s campaign used Bain’s layoffs to devastating effect in his Senate victory over Romney in 1994. The Kennedy folks even flew workers laid off by companies Bain had invested in to Massachusetts to campaign.
The Bain attacks were never likely to be terribly popular with the media, which given their upper-middle-class orientation, skew left on cultural issues like gay marriage, but right on economic ones like free trade. But Obama can’t win reelection simply with the votes of young, single, and minority voters. He needs to hold down his losses among blue-collar whites, a group with which he has always struggled. Using Romney’s stewardship at Bain to drive a wedge between him and the culturally conservative working-class whites whose turnout he desperately needs made a lot of sense, especially if the Obama campaign had tied Romney’s record at Bain to his support for unpopular Republican budgetary proposals.
But all that is now theoretical. The Booker, Patrick, and Clinton attacks virtually guarantee that the media will greet any additional anti-Bain attacks with scorn. The biggest flaw in Obama’s strategy, it appears, is not that swing voters can’t stomach his populist attacks, but that his fellow Democratic politicians can’t. Desperate for campaign cash, the Democratic Party has since the 1980s become deeply enmeshed with the finance industry.
I don’t think Booker, Patrick, and Clinton are throwing Obama overboard to fatten their campaign coffers. (Clinton isn’t running for anything, and Booker’s comments have probably done him more harm than good since he’s now seem as something of a turncoat by Democratic partisans.) It’s more subtle than that. Politicians, like all of us, are creatures of our experience. I suspect that spending so much time in the company of Wall Street has truly influenced the way many Democratic politicians see the world.
If Obama abandons his attacks on private equity, conservatives will say it proves that ordinary Americans admire places like Bain. But there’s not much evidence for that. What the last couple of weeks really illustrate is how difficult it is to run against the financial industry in a political system where it wields so much influence. Like it or not, those are the rules of the game that Obama must win this fall.