NASHUA, N.H. – Under assault from opponents painting him as a corporate predator, Mitt Romney came here Monday morning to defend his career in private equity but made a remark that seemed to underscore the narrative his rivals are pushing.
“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” Romney told a breakfast forum of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “You know, if someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I'm going to get someone else to provide this service to me.’”
The remark immediately provided campaign fodder to Romney’s Republican rivals a day before the New Hampshire primary, and Democrats began circulating video clips of it. Romney later accused political opponents of taking his remark out of context.
Romney’s comment came in response to a question about health-care policy before more than 300 area business leaders. The former Massachusetts governor was referring to being able to change insurance companies. Before making the “fire people” comment, Romney said: “I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you could fire them.”
(See the video, below:)
Seizing on the comment, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman told reporters in Condord, N.H., “Governor Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs,” the Associated Press reported. He said Romney may be “slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America, and that's a dangerous place for someone to be.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was focusing on the upcoming South Carolina primary, also took a shot at Romney’s comment Sunday that he had worried during his career about receiving a “pink slip” — without providing any example of when he feared being fired. Perry told a gathering in Anderson, S.C., “I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips — whether he'd have enough of them to hand out.”
Speaking to reporters later in Hudson, N.H., Romney said: “I understand that in politics people are going to try and grasp at anything, take it out of context and make it something it’s not, and by the way that’s the nature of the process.... I’ve got to be an adult about it and recognize it goes with the territory.”
Asked to clarify his remark earlier Monday, Romney said he was referring to being able to get rid of health insurance companies that provided poor services. “I believe in the setting as I described this morning where people are able to choose their own doctor, choose their own insurance company. If they don’t like their insurance company or their provider, they can get rid of it. That’s the way America works.”
Romney’s remark about firing people came at a critical juncture, as he began a day of campaigning across New Hampshire on the eve of a primary in which he is heavily favored. On Wednesday, Romney will head to South Carolina, which hosts a more consequential primary Jan. 21 and where his opponents and their allies have begun launching caustic attacks over Romney’s career as co-founder and chief executive at Bain Capital.
Romney opened his 25-minute speech in Nashua by defending his business record.
“I think some people imagine, by the way, that I just went directly to the top positions in industry and in business, that I started off as vice chairman or chairman or CEO of Bain,” Romney said. “You probably know I started off actually at the entry level, coming out of graduate school in business, first at the Boston Consulting Group, worked there for a while.”
Romney said he was asked to join Bain as a management consultant, entering “at the bottom level,” before founding the company’s venture-capital arm, Bain Capital.
“I learned some lessons along the way, saw some successes and some failures, and net-net it was an extraordinary experience,” Romney said.
The speech came a day after Romney said he had personally feared losing his job. “I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re gonna get fired,” Romney said Sunday at a campaign rally in Rochester, N.H. “There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.”
In the Nashua speech, Romney did not directly refer to the leveraged buyouts he managed at Bain, some of which resulted in job losses, but used general terms to defend his business practices.
“You look at data,” Romney said. “And if you don’t, you won’t be around very long.”
“In the business world,” he added, “we understand that things are not static. They’re dynamic.”
As he has at recent campaign stops, Romney brought up his firm’s initial $5 million investment to start Staples, the office supplies superstore. “I was there helping stock the shelves with others at night,” Romney said.
Romney acknowledges his own flaws, but cast himself, in comparison to President Obama, as a champion of free enterprise.
“I’m not perfect by any means,” Romney said. “I don’t have all the answers to all the questions, but I fundamentally believe in the principles that made America the great nation it is, and if I’m president I will take my 25 years of experience in the private sector and use that to rekindle the basis of our economic foundation.”
In his later remarks to reporters in Hudson, Romney accused former House speaker Newt Gingrich of parroting Democratic attacks over his record at Bain Capital. He questioned why, after apologizing for this line of attack last month, Gingrich is now returning to it.
“So he apologized for that, and now he decided to make that a centerpiece?” Romney said. “Well, I’m not going to worry about that. As we’ll find out, free enterprise will be on trial. I thought it was going to come from the president, from the Democrats on the left, but instead it’s coming from speaker Gingrich and apparently others. And that’s just part of the process. I’m not worried about that. I’ve got broad shoulders.”
Asked to cite examples of when he feared getting a “pink slip,” Romney said: “As you probably know in your profession, you never quite know what’s going to happen.... I came out of school and I got an entry-level position like the other people that were freshly-minted MBAs, and like anybody that starts at the bottom of an enterprise, you wonder, when you don’t do so well, whether you’re going to be able to hang onto your job, and you wonder if the enterprise gets in trouble, you know, will you be one of those that’s laid off.”
Romney added: “If you think I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people, as opposed [to] saying my own experience and telling my own experience, then that would make me a very different person than I am. I’m going to tell people my own experiences in life — and I realize they’re not the same as everyone else I speak with. But I’m going to tell you about myself, and if people like that, great.”