Newt Gingrich’s barbs against Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s old investment firm, during the Republican presidential-primary campaign were merely an appetizer. Months later, the Obama campaign is launching its own Bain blitz, releasing a maudlin, two-minute montage of disgruntled steelworkers who supposedly lost their jobs because of Romney’s ruthlessness.
The campaign spot, which focuses on GST Steel, formerly of Kansas City, Mo., casts Romney as a Wall Street “vampire” who restructured the company, sold its parts, and left town before it went belly-up.
Romney has dealt with such attacks before, most memorably during his 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy. But how the Romney campaign responds to this Obama broadside will say much about its general-election strategy, and its defense of Romney’s past.
Several Republican strategists, in background chats, tell National Review Online that this moment is a critical test for Team Romney, which needs to assert its ability to return fire on the Bain front.
“Obama’s bumper sticker about Bain, about how big financial institutions are evil, beats an essay describing how private equity and Romney’s work are part of the solution,” says Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican consultant. “Romney has to be careful to not get chased on specific ventures, and instead focus on the bigger economic picture.”
Romney advisers spent much of Monday mounting a counterattack. In conversations with reporters and through campaign memos, the campaign scurried to define Romney’s Bain record on its own terms; it also took care to point out factual problems with Obama’s critique.
“The ad is not only hypocritical, it’s a summary judgment of exactly why [Obama] has failed to lead the American economy,” Kevin Madden, a top Romney adviser, tells NRO. “It’s an example of Obama being divisive, looking backward and trying to blame anyone but himself for his lack of progress as a president.”
On an afternoon conference call, Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, echoed that message. “We’ll make sure the facts get out there,” he said, including the fact that when GST Steel declared bankruptcy in 2001, Romney was two years removed from Bain Capital and running the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“There were successes and there were failures; that’s the nature of the private marketplace,” Gillespie said, reflecting on Romney’s role. He acknowledged that some employees may have lost their jobs due to Bain’s management, but only because the firm wanted to grow and sustain the business — not because it wanted to wanted to fire workers.
“This White House and president don’t really understand the nature of the private sector,” Gillespie said. Instead of backing away from Romney’s time at Bain, he continued, the campaign will highlight Romney’s successes in the coming weeks, from his leadership at Staples and the Sports Authority to his involvement with Steel Dynamics, a company that, Patrick Brennan reports, grew under Bain Capital’s supervision, building new plants in the late 1990s.
Later Monday, the Romney campaign released its own video featuring steelworkers from Steel Dynamics, who spoke positively about Romney’s role in creating industrial jobs in the Rust Belt. The ad, “American Dream,” was seen by GOP political professionals as an example of how the Romney team was prepared for the Obama attack.
Other Romney advisers and surrogates underscore the importance of contrasting Romney’s private-sector leadership with Obama’s public-sector failures. It’ll be important, one outside adviser says, for Romney to push back on the inaccurate Obama spin, and, in the process, to knock Obama for talking clumsily about business.
“The Romney camp recognizes that they can’t afford to wait,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a senior Romney adviser. “They learned early on in this campaign that investing in preparation pays off — that responding quickly to deceitful attacks matters. They also learned that you have to talk frankly about capitalism, about how there are no guarantees, even when you are doing your best to create jobs.”
Gingrich’s primary-campaign criticisms of Romney’s wealth and Bain experience, one Romney insider adds, were “batting practice” for the general election, when they knew liberals would needle Romney. “This is something we’ve expected,” the insider says. “It doesn’t come as a shock that [Obama’s advisers] are trying to play up this angle.”
Both Gingrich’s primary ad and Obama’s general-election video, which feature testimonials from union workers, are provocative, but they’re hardly fresh, GOP operatives say. In tone and style, the gritty montages repeat the way Romney’s opponents have framed his private-sector work over the past two decades, with varying degree of success.
Ever since 1994, Romney has been battling his opponents over the nature of his responsibility for job losses at companies purchased by Bain Capital. That year, Kennedy, who was down in the polls, mounted a comeback late in the campaign, thanks to a hard-hitting commercial featuring angry employees from an Indiana paper plant that had been purchased by a Bain subsidiary.
Bob Shrum, Kennedy’s strategist during that campaign, tells NRO that Romney’s response to Obama will be more complicated than his response to Kennedy, because of his public persona as a detached businessman — a profile, he argues, that has hardened over the years.
“This Obama ad is effective because it undermines his central rationale, that he’s a businessman who creates jobs,” Shrum says. “In 1994, he responded poorly to the [Kennedy] ad, waiting days to take a position on it and refusing to meet with the workers when they came to visit him. He just took the hit. This time, he’s coming back, but as he does that, he reminds people of how much he personally profited.”
Gingrich, who used similar anti-Bain rhetoric, was roundly criticized by conservatives for demonizing capitalism. Romney’s advisers, betting that Americans have soured on the president’s handling of the economy, predict that the video will be interpreted as a fumbling attempt by Obama’s Chicago handlers to blame the market for his problems, and they shrug off the 1994 precedent.
“This is how far Obama has fallen,” Madden says. “The hope-and-change candidate of the future has been reduced to an ordinary politician who just points fingers because he doesn’t have a positive record to run on.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.