Why I’m Writing So Much About Bain
I don’t often follow one story exclusively for more than a couple of posts, but I’ve focused on the story of Romney’s pre-2002 relationship with Bain Capital because I think it is — and will only prove to be more so with time — a very important development.
On the abstract level, simply as someone who’s fascinated by the communication-loop binding politicians, the media, and the public together, the Bain story is a perfect case-study. Like climatologists who couldn’t help but look with a muted wonder at Hurricane Irene, amateur and professional observers of American politics can’t but be taken with the perfect storm-like qualities of the struggle to define Romney’s tenure at Bain.
First the weather, then the news: Structurally, the doldrums of summer are a rather perilous time for a major campaign (especially one that suffers from less-than-conjugal relations with the media). It’s not a coincidence that the Bain story has risen to dominate the political media’s attention now, in mid-July. With Romney having long ago secured the nomination, and with the Obama Administration maintaining its habit of avoiding major scandals, newsfolk are in deficit of worthwhile copy to put in-between the advertisements. Paradoxically, however, the late-summer and early Fall is when many casual and undecided voters begin paying closer attention to the Presidential contest. The end result could be that voters familiarize themselves with Mitt Romney at the precise moment when the Republican campaign’s brain trust would most like them preoccupied with Katie Holmes’ mad dash to freedom.
Turning to the Bain story, specifically, and away from the fundamentals that make its arrival at the present moment so dangerous for the Romney campaign, the Republican’s dilemma is one John Kerry came to know all too well: Romney’s key asset as a candidate is fast-becoming his Achille’s heel.
Because his one term as Governor of Massachusetts is remembered, at least outside New England, by its centrist managerialism, Romney’s avoided citing his sole juncture in elected office as a qualification for the presidency. Romneycare, the proto-Obamacare health insurance overhaul that remains today his chief public policy legacy, does him no good with already skeptical conservatives. Maybe even worse, Massachusetts’ economy during Romney’s term was rather stagnant — and the excuses he offered for this mediocrity at the time echo those of President Obama today. And given the Right’s fondness for mocking the current President for his lack of experience, as well as his fondness for the golf course, Romney’s decision to spend the latter two years of his governorship sewing the seeds for his 2008 presidential candidacy (in service of which he spent around 33 percent of his time out-of-state) is yet another reason Romney’s campaign says barely a peep about his time as Governor.
What he’s left with, then, is his experience as CEO of Bain Capital. In a bad economy, being an extraordinarily successful businessman can have its obvious benefits; and so from very early on, Romney clearly decided he’d win or lose off the strength of his corporate Mr. Fix It appeal. “I know why jobs come and I know why they go,” he’s fond of repeating. As the Republican candidate has learned, however, his tenure at Bain is at best a mixed-bag, politically. Yes, he made a mountain of money, and did so in a way that was highly influential within his field. But a negative side-effect of being a phenom of capitalist efficiency is all that human collateral damage. Americans tend to revere pioneers — but not so much when the unexplored vistas are in China, and not so much when rather than apple seeds, it was American jobs ploughed into that faraway soil.
Even more than its history loading companies with debt, reaping massive financial rewards, and then taking off when things went south and these firms had to file for bankruptcy, Bain Capital’s outsourcing alienates the blue-collar workers Romney’s fervently courting. The easily transferable inference an uninformed voter could make is that Romney’s wealth not only results in his living a different lifestyle than the rest of us, but that it’s a wealth he amassed by, in his business practices, living in a different country. Anyone familiar with the nuances of a globalized economic order is likely to find the distinction between downsizing and outsourcing curious or even nonsensical; but nationalism remains a potent force in American politics, easily superseding class.
As Gallup’s Business Journal wrote in 2007, “American executives should be aware of the fact that, regardless of what their companies think of outsourcing, the vast majority of their customers aren’t keen on it.”
The Romney campaign has, in my eyes, only compounded their problem by insisting their candidate had nothing to do with Bain after 1999. For one thing, this doesn’t seem to be true. But even if it is, understanding Romney’s position requires wading into the weeds of corporate governance, and the legal grey area between nominally and actually running a firm eventually swallows the conversation whole, leaving partisans on both sides just enough grist to maintain their version of events to be The Truth. Soon enough, the division among the public between those who believe Romney knew Bain’s activities after 1999, and those who don’t, will track quite neatly with the larger partisan breakdown. Romney will be the pioneer of outsourcing in the same way that Al Gore said he invented the internet, Barack Obama was good friends with Bill Ayers, and John Kerry lied about his Vietnam War heroism.
Politico’s Ginger Gibson explained the problem well:
The problem for the Romney campaign, when it comes to the Bain issue, is that things are reaching the point where the facts don’t really matter. The bigger problem is that the Bain cloud now hanging over the former Massachusetts governor is growing daily, and the Romney campaign still hasn’t found a compelling way to respond to what’s becoming the driving narrative, fairly or unfairly, of the 2012 campaign.
So instead of discussing the poor economy, Romney and company find themselves spinning his tenure at Bain anew every day, as one reporter after another digs up some new tidbit of information, thus justifying yet another story recapping the whole brouhaha and explaining how new revelations only promise to keep it in the spotlight. Worse, Romneyites next argue that his time at (or not at) Bain — which was, recall, the central argument in favor of his candidacy — should be off-limits. The stiff, awkward, remote Master of the Universe is suddenly in effect telling voters to hand over the keys and mind their own business. Maybe in a political environment in which the Otherness of the hyper-wealthy weren’t so salient, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. But Romney’s running for President during a year when, for the first time in my lifetime, being accused by Republicans of engaging in “class warfare” doesn’t induce heartburn among Democrats.
You put it all together, and the Bain story turns into a potentially fatal development for Republicans; it allows wary voters and Democrats, both, to conclude that the already unpopular Romney is that worst of things: Exactly what they thought.