A few thoughts on Romney and Bain

July 16, 2012

1. Anyone expecting a major swing in the polls from these attacks is likely to be disappointed. Remember that most voters who haven't already made up their minds mostly aren't paying attention, and voters who live in swing states and haven't made up their minds have already seen hundreds of ads on this topic and it hasn't been enough to push them off the fence.

2. The Romney campaign's preferred defense is that after 1999, he was "sole stockholder, CEO, chairman, and president of Bain Capital" in name only, and therefore not responsible for any of the decisions made. I suspect this narrative will, in the long-run, prove worse for Romney than the narrative it's trying to defend against. More on this later.

Romney and his team at Bain Capital. (More on this photo here.)

3. That Romney wasn't better prepared for the attacks on Bain and the questions over his taxes is one of the great mysteries of this campaign. An example: In 2008, Romney turned more than 20 years of his tax returns over to the McCain team in order to be vetted for the vice presidency. So he clearly realized that tax returns could matter for political campaigns. And yet he didn't call his accountants in 2008 and say "make my taxes simple. Now." Why?

4. What isn't a mystery is why he isn't releasing more of his tax returns now. As John Cassidy writes, "It’s only fair to assume that Mitt is doing what he always does: acting on the basis of a careful cost-benefit analysis. [George] Will’s comments on this were spot on: 'The cost of not releasing the returns are clear,' he said. 'Therefore, [Romney] must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them.'"

5. This is one of the most devastating attack ads I've ever seen:

6. You've probably heard the bit of cynical political wisdom that holds: "if you're explaining, you're losing." A corollary could be: "if you're asking for an apology, you're getting killed." The Romney campaign is now demanding an apology from the Obama campaign. But even if you believe Obama's ad is misleading, the campaign that did this can't complain about misleading attack ads. That's one reason they shouldn't have done that.

7. The best-world version of Mitt Romney is running a campaign that embraces creative destruction and outsourcing and buyouts and all the rest of it because these things help our economy become more dynamic. That's where his business experience at Bain might actually help him understand the economy -- he has seen the costs of firm-level sclerosis and stagnation firsthand. Think something along the lines of this essay by Reihan Salam. The problem is that the candidate running that campaign needs to have a real answer for the workers who are hurt by that dynamism. Part of that answer would need to be a larger safety net -- something akin to Denmark's "flexicurity" system. But the modern GOP won't permit Romney to run a campaign that embraces a larger safety net. And so he can't embrace his own economic experience without appearing cruel.

8. The irony is that the candidate who could have squared this circle is...Mitt Romney. He would have been perfect, in fact. As the former CEO of Bain Capital, he would have been credible on the economic argument in a way most politicians simply aren't. As the first governor to successfully pass and implement a universal health care program in the United States, he would have been credible on the safety net in a way most Republicans simply aren't. But rather than merging Bain and Massachusetts into one campaign, he's running from both.

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Brad Plumer · July 16, 2012