A month ago, conventional wisdom had it that the Bain attacks on Mitt Romney were somehow failing terribly — notwithstanding the fact that they’ve been key parts of every other campaign Democrats and Republicans have run against Romney going all the way back to 1994. And yet all of a sudden, the Obama campaign is going full outsource/Bain attack on Romney at every opportunity. So they think it’s working great. New polling suggests they may be on to something. And in the most telling development, in the days leading up to the surprise Supreme Court ruling, the Romney campaign itself is mounting a mammoth pushback, signaling more clearly than anything that they think it’s working too.
So what happened?
Consider three basic factors. First, round one of the Bain Wars was almost entirely hashed out in what you might call the Acela corridor — an insular community, overwhelmingly affluent and educated, and decidedly not the audience for the message or the folks who find themselves on the receiving end of capitalism’s creative destruction.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) visited TPM’s DC offices last week as part of our Newsmaker interview series and said basically: trust me, this message worked in Ohio. Maybe he was right all along. I suspect he was.
But there was another rhetorical dimension. ‘Private equity’ is a weird phrase. Most people have no idea what it does or doesn’t mean. And the Romney campaign through it’s surrogates was able to hit its opponents with something like ‘Hey, it’s poor form to be going all Nation magaziney and pretending that private equity isn’t awesome!’
And within that community, it worked. Thus Cory Booker, Bill Clinton, and a lot of other Democrats. ‘Private equity’ means a lot of different things. My own sense is that some parts of it are incredibly destructive while others create efficient allocations of capital. But who cares what I think? Wherever you come down on that question there’s simply no question that private equity is at the tip of the the spear of creative destruction in our society. So in a country where everybody gets to vote, it’s sort of crazy to think criticizing something like that would somehow be beyond the pale like attacking the Pope or crapping on motherhood and apple pie. But there it was.
‘Outsourcing’ though and ‘Offshoring’ — these are just more graspable words, more concrete concepts. Everybody understands them. Everybody knows what they mean. I’m pretty sure the Romney campaign wants to say something like, ‘C’mon, our whole economy today is based on stuff like this and we all know it and everybody accepts it so don’t pretend otherwise.’ But they can’t. And what really got them all boxed up was when they got themselves into this ridiculous debate over whether Mitt’s an ‘outsourcer’ or an ‘offershorer’. As I said Monday, that’s an argument you lose by winning. Or lose by losing. Whichever way, you lose.
Even really smart strategists manage sometimes to charge into a brown paper bag like this. But this was a bad move because it opened Romney up to that most lethal political weapons: ridicule and mockery. The Obama camp seemed to get this early and just decided to drive a freight train right through him. Holding out for this distinction seemed incredibly stupid and more than that wildly out of touch since the difference is basically immaterial to people who lose their jobs as a result of it. And, as always, weakness which invites attacks.
In a country afflicted for decades by loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and chronically stagnant working class and middle class wages it’s crazy to think that Romney’s history as a private equity king — especially one working the lower tiers of the private equity world — wouldn’t be a liability for a lot of voters. But it was something that DC reporters were best positioned to miss.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.