I do not believe that, as of yet, Obama's attacks on Bain Capital are working. For over two months, Obama has enjoyed a 4 or 5-1 advantage over Romney in ad spending in swing states and the race is essentially stagnant. Some pundits argue they are working because, in their estimation, Romney should enjoy a clear lead in the polls now. I think that's unrealistic and underestimates the powerful role of incumbency. Even Jimmy Carter, with a worse economic record and less compelling personal story than Obama, led Reagan for much of the 1980 campaign, only to lose in a landslide. That said, there is potential danger ahead for the Romney campaign.
Campaigns rarely succumb to a single line of attack or even a scatter-shot of multiple attacks. They fall as a result of a succession of attacks that reinforce a single, unflattering narrative. The individual attacks are brush-strokes that, collectively, paint a negative portrait of the candidate. Romney's campaign is dangerously close to finding itself in this position. The trouble with recent brush-fires over Romney's exact tenure at Bain and his tax returns isn't that they are distractions from the campaign's preferred message, but that they can be woven together to reinforce a narrative that Romney is a shifty politician with something to hide.
The whole question of when exactly Romney left Bain arose out of his campaign's desire to avoid Obama's charge that Romney shipped jobs overseas. The campaign's ready response to the claim was that whatever outsourcing or factory closings that occurred happened after Romney had left Bain to run the Winter Olympics in 1999. While this is probably true, it looks muddled now that some SEC documents have surfaced showing that Romney remained the sole shareholder in Bain and retained the titles of CEO and Chairman between 1999-2002. The facts are clear that Romney left active management of Bain in 1999 and the SEC documents are rather routine filings required because of his continuing ownership stake in the firm. But, let's face it, it looks a little sketchy.
For many voters, its hard to square the idea that someone is CEO of a firm where they are the sole shareholder and draws a salary from that firm and isn't somehow involved in that firm's management decisions. Understanding what a herculean task it was to rescue the Olympics, I completely believe that he wasn't involved in the management of Bain or its investments in individual companies. But, I've been in politics long enough to know the optics look bad.
On his taxes, Romney has followed the general tradition of releasing 1-2 years of returns. Obama has released returns going back to 2000, but that is an exception to recent Presidential candidates. Personally, I don't think Romney, or the public, gains anything by releasing additional returns. If he released 5 years of returns, Democrats and the media would say he should release 10. If he released 10, they would demand 15. Its generally a good idea to avoid "rope-a-dope" games.
This morning, on Fox and Friends, Romney said he didn't want to release more returns because, basically, it would just provide fodder for Obama's opposition research team to distort specific items in the returns. Intellectually, I understand this point, but politically it did raise an eyebrow. So far, he has released one return and we know from it that he is very rich and that, because of the nature of his income, he pays a lower rate than people who earn the bulk of their income from a salary. We know that he, as virtually every American strives to do, has utilized every possible credit, deduction or investment vehicle to minimize his tax burden. What further information is in the older returns for the Obama team to distort?
I'm not worried that Romney did anything illegal or even unethical in his taxes. Returns of his size are closely scrutinized by the IRS. I'm confident that everything is up to muster. So, what is in these returns that is materially different than the two most recent? Perhaps a spectacularly large windfall or a particularly aggressive tax avoidance strategy? On its own, I don't think its a big deal politically. But, combined with the questions over his exact tenure at Bain and the very nature of Bain's business itself, it will raise suspicions in many voters' minds.
Romney needs to get above all this and reset the narrative. Every debate comes down to a 30-second position and a 5-minute position. The person who can explain their position in 30 seconds will always beat the person who needs 5 minutes. Romney is in danger of going into the fall with a 5 minute position as it relates to his wealth and Bain Capital.
Obama is basing his campaign on an out-right assault against free enterprise. In recent days, he has argued that those who are successful in business are "lucky" or their success was dependent on government building "roads and bridges" or providing other support. His lack of understanding of the private sector or investment, risk, and profit are mind-boggling. He is using this rhetoric and his attacks on Bain to shift the public's understanding of markets and the economy in a very radical way. He is stoking the embers of class resentment to cast the wealthy, at least those who aren't his donors, as an object of contempt. To secure reelection, he is willing to burn down ideals our country has held since its founding.
Romney must answer this. He has largely avoided many of these issues and has often looked like he is simply trying to run out the clock with each new lousy jobs report. And, there is about a 60% chance that the economy will tank even further over the next few months, making all of this moot. But, even if Romney wins the election, he will have missed an incredible opportunity to reinforce the public's commitment to American Exceptionalism.
When Barack Obama was suffering through a drip-drip of revelations about Rev. Jeremiah Wright's radical sermons, he gave a generally well-received speech on race. The speech, albeit with a powerful assist from the media, allowed Obama to transcend the specific controversies surround Wright and assure voters that he didn't share the Reverend's radical views.
Romney needs to do the same on Bain and free enterprise, in general. He should tell the full story of Bain, how, yes factories closed and jobs were lost, but also companies thrived, new businesses were created and thousands of jobs were created. He should argue forcefully that the collective risk-taking of millions of entrepreneurs, many of whom fail, is the true engine of our prosperity. He should forcefully articulate how Obama's progressive values shackle the economy and stifle innovation. He should go beyond the specific monthly economic data and outline the vision that made America great and will assuredly restore her formerly mighty economic power.
After all, this is what's at stake this election. Might as well put it front and center.
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