Why are we talking about Bain Capital again?
The answer, it seems, is that the two presidential campaigns want it that way. The Romney campaign wants us talking about Bain Capital because Mitt Romney says his time leading the firm prepared him for the presidency.
“Having been in the private sector for 25 years gives me a perspective on how jobs are created that someone who’s never spent a day in the private sector, like President Obama, simply doesn’t understand,” he told Time. This, the Romney campaign suggests, is the critical contrast between the two candidates. Their candidate learned about job creation at Bain. Obama learned how to quote Saul Alinsky at open-mike poetry jams in Chicago.
The Obama campaign wants to discuss Bain because its team believes it shows Romney is unqualified for the presidency. Romney knows how to strip a business for parts, and to make investors and himself rich, but he doesn’t know how to expand opportunity or how to look out for workers left behind by economic dislocation.
“If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about,” Obama said this week. In other words, Obama learned how to help fired steelworkers in Chicago. Romney learned how to fire them at Bain.
The conversation between the campaigns would make perfect sense if Romney had quit Bain in 2010 to begin running for president. He didn’t. He left Bain in February 1999 to run the Olympics. And then, rather than returning to the firm, he ran for governor of Massachusetts and won. So we are, mercifully, freed from having to investigate every investment he made at Bain to uncover clues about how he would govern. We can just look at his record.
Which leads to the next question: Why have we spent approximately no time talking about Romney’s governorship?
The answer, again, is that neither campaign really wants to. The Romney campaign wants to avoid it because Romney governed from the center in ways that could now alienate the right. In a Republican Party looking for a true conservative, Romney sees little but danger in his record. His signature legislative accomplishment was the forerunner to “Obamacare.” Meanwhile, his state ranked 47th in job creation during his term. (So much for the secret knowledge gleaned from Bain about how to create jobs.)
The Obama campaign doesn’t want to discuss it because Romney’s centrist record as governor might comfort independents, who otherwise may fear that Romney is a creature of the right. “I think people recognize that I’m not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive,” Romney said in 2002.
His health-care reform extended coverage to the uninsured, undercutting the image of a rapacious private-equity pirate. Although his state didn’t create many jobs, unemployment nevertheless fell from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent while he was governor. In a country that’s looking for an alternative to Obama but is scared of the extremism of the modern right, the Obama camp doesn’t see much upside in emphasizing Romney’s moderate gubernatorial record.
But that record may not be a good predictor of Romney’s potential presidency. In Massachusetts, Romney governed a blue electorate and negotiated with a Democratic legislature. If he wins the presidency this fall, he will almost certainly be negotiating with a Republican House and Senate, which would be swept into office along with him.
We don’t have to pore over every decision Romney made in Massachusetts to discern what he would do in Washington if elected. Romney and the Republicans in Congress have explained exactly what they intend to accomplish — and their plans are remarkably in sync.
The budget prepared by Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and the Romney campaign’s general-election platform look quite similar. Both would cut taxes while flattening the tax code. Their Medicare-reform plans look similar; Ryan even modified his original draft to make it look more like Romney’s, which allows seniors to choose between traditional fee-for-service Medicare and private options. Their plans to increase defense spending are alike, as are their plans to cut domestic spending and to turn Medicaid, food stamps and other safety-net programs over to the states.
Because it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Romney is elected and Republicans don’t hold the House and win control of the Senate, Republicans wouldn’t be stymied by Democratic opposition. They would have the votes to pass their agenda. True, they won’t get a filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the upper chamber, but Ryan’s budget is, well, a budget, which means it could be passed through the budget reconciliation process — and couldn’t be filibustered. To enact a radical change of direction, Republicans need only a simple majority of votes.
Given that stark reality, perhaps I should rephrase my initial question: Why are we spending so much time discussing what Romney did at Bain . . . instead of what he will do as president?