Romney has cast himself as an enabler of American dreams: His campaign says his work at Bain built businesses and created tens of thousands of jobs.
But both campaigns, as well as others in Washington, still seem to be struggling with how to talk about an industry that exaggerates both the good things and the bad things about capitalism.
On Tuesday alone, Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.) said Romney’s firm “did what they were supposed to do.” But Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) — the third-ranking Democrat in the House — likened Romney’s work at Bain to rape. “There’s something about raping companies and leaving them in debt. . . . I have a real serious problem with that,” he said on MSNBC.
The Obama campaign said it “strongly disagreed” with Clyburn’s characterization.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference and a Romney supporter, condemned Clyburn’s comments, saying in a statement that “using the word ‘rape’ to describe Gov. Romney’s record as a job creator is offensive, especially to women.”
In a speech later in the day, Vice President Biden argued that Romney’s work in private equity is irrelevant for the position he is now seeking.
“Your job as president is to promote the common good,” Biden said in Keene, N.H. “That doesn’t mean that private-equity guys are bad guys; they’re not. But that no more qualifies you to be president than being a plumber.”
Romney’s campaign said Tuesday that by attacking Romney’s tenure at Bain, Obama is guilty of an “assault on free enterprise” itself.
Romney’s time at Bain Capital is a keystone of his political persona: It defines a candidate who tries to avoid being defined by his wealth, his liberal home state of Massachusetts or his Mormon religion.
In 2008, Obama cast himself as someone who understood politics well enough to fix it. In 2012, Romney has used Bain to make the same argument about the economy.
“I know what it means to meet a payroll,” he wrote in the introduction to his economic plan. “I know why businesses hire people, and why they become forced to lay them off.”
But all this might be easier if Romney had dealt in pizzas and not pizza companies (Bain purchased Domino’s Pizza on Romney’s watch). The nature of private equity — its unsentimental focus on “creating wealth,” and the long distance between Bain executives and the workers they oversaw — has complicated the story Romney wants to tell.
In general, private-equity firms invest in other companies, and then use their own smarts and borrowed money to remake them, for sale at a profit. In some cases, that can mean hiring new management, or providing money for a new factory or marketing effort.