Yesterday, on “Meet the Press,” Newark mayor Cory Booker went off message and admonished the Obama campaign for its attacks on Bain Capital:
"It's nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity. Stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. As far as that stuff, I have to just say from a very personal level I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, it's just we're getting to a ridiculous point in America. Especially that I know I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people invest in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses."
The false equivalence here is easy to spot. The Jeremiah Wright controversy doesn't tell you anything about President Obama's presidency, and it actually is an attack on the president's character — an attempt to paint him as a dangerous black radical. Bain Capital, by contrast, provides an actual window into Mitt Romney's priorities and interests as a politician, which is why both sides have brought it to the center of their campaigns.
For Romney, it helps build the appearance of competence. Voters are dissatisfied with the economy, and if they believe Romney has the skills to fix the problem, he will have cleared an important hurdle in his fight for the White House. It's why he continues to cite the thousands of jobs he helped create at Bain, despite the lack of any actual proof.
For Obama, the focus on Bain's ugly side — vacant factories, abandoned workers and extracted wealth — is an attempt to flip Romney's competence into a liability; yes, he's good at his job, and for years, his job was to hurt the middle-class. The strength of this attack is that it holds appeal to white working-class voters in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Right now, those voters are the weakest link in his reelection effort. If he can improve his performance, or at least, bring it to John Kerry levels, he'll have a much stronger shot at reelection.
The danger is that the attack could alienate Democrats with a connection to the investor class, who are already uneasy with the administration. This includes politicians such as Cory Booker, who have a direct connection to Wall Street, as well as any other Democrat who relies on the finance industry for campaign contributions. What's more, the attack on Bain Capital comes close enough to the GOP charge of "class warfare" that it could harm Obama's standing with the affluent and college-educated voters that were crucial to his 2008 victories in Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado.
None of this is reason for Democrats to move away from the attack on Bain Capital; this has been a persistent drag on Romney's political career for a reason — when used by able hands, the attack on Bain highlights the worst aspects of Romney's political persona and places him on the defensive with voters. But the Obama campaign should know that it comes with the potential for blowback, and in a election that will probably turn on a few voters in a few states, that's a risk worth considering.
As an aside, Cory Booker’s gaffe — in the classic, truth-telling sense — gets to a broader, more important problem in American politics: the extent to which Wall Street has become the only viable funding mechanism for major national elections. For Democrats in particular, the decline of unions — and any other counterweight to wealthy interests — has put their political interests at odds with their substantive concerns. Liberals such as Booker might support Wall Street regulation, but they are effectively co-opted by the need for funding and support in expensive statewide elections. It's hard to imagine a viable, long-term progressive politics when electoral success depends on the generosity of the nation's wealthiest interests.