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The Bain migraine

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The reviews from the pundit pack are
in this week?and not since the
British fleet turned back the Spanish
Armada in the English Channel has
there been a rapid response to rival
the Barack Obama campaign?s assault on Mitt Romney?s business career. ?The attacks on Bain, outsourcing,
and his investments are sticking to Romney like Velcro ,? writes political analyst Charlie Cook in the National
Journal. Time magazine?s Mark
Halperin calls for ?Prizzi?s Honor-style homage to the ruthless killing machine that is the combined White
House-Chicago operation.? And at
ABC News, Michael Falcone and Amy
Walter note, ?We have yet to find a
GOP strategist who is happy with the
Romney campaign these days. Not one.? But before we commission
photographs of the Obamas dancing
at the 2013 inaugural balls, it is worth
pointing out that we still have a
Romney vice presidential pick, two
conventions and four debates ahead of us. Presidential campaigns are
invariably filled with dramatic ups and
downs like a game of Chutes and
Ladders. Today?s brilliant strategist is
often tomorrow?s has-been. Bill
Clinton was running third in the Gallup poll, behind both George H.W.
Bush and Ross Perot, in early July
1992. And, according to Gallup,
Jimmy Carter held a 6-point edge over
Ronald Reagan a week before the
1980 election. But the Bain refrain is about more
than politics, since the continuing
controversy purportedly speaks to
Romney?s character and credentials
for the presidency. Or, at least, that?s
the way that Democrats portray it. In truth, things are a bit more complex.
Little of the rat-a-tat of charges,
countercharges, attack ads, feigned
outrage and snark have any direct
connection with actually serving in
the Oval Office. But there are aspects of Romney?s business career and
wealth that do touch on the
presidency. So let?s try to find the
nuggets of relevance amid the
partisan posturing. The Buck Starts Here: When Romney
ran for president the first time around,
he stressed his conservative values
and his problem-solving pedigree as
a political outsider. In his 2007 announcement address, he barely mentioned his business career
beyond a few vague lines such as,
?Throughout my life, I have pursued
innovation and transformation.? But Romney 2.0 adopted a different
approach for the 2012 campaign. A
sputtering economy and a hush-hush
approach to his gubernatorial record
(Sh! Massachusetts has a health care
mandate) meant that Bain Capital suddenly became the most appealing
part of the Romney resume. Kicking
off his campaign in New Hampshire in
June 2011, Romney talked about his
role in launching ?innovative startups? and admitted, ?Sometimes I was successful and helped create
jobs, other times I was not.? As is often the case in presidential
politics, subtleties quickly gave way to
braggadocio. In a September 2011 debate, Romney claimed, ?My experience, having started
enterprises, having helped other
enterprises grow and thrive, is what
gives me the experience to put
together a plan ... so we can create
jobs again, good jobs, and compete with anyone in the world.? The result is that Romney?s quarter
century at Bain became far more than
a biographical accomplishment like
Romney?s successful stewardship of
the 2002 Winter Olympics. Suddenly, it
was at the core of the Romney I-can- create-jobs-and-Obama-can?t political
argument. The notion was always a
bit of a logical stretch, but it seemed
politically preferable to Romney than
emphasizing his health care record as
governor. Piling Up the Bucks: Romney?s wealth
is beyond the imagining of most
voters?around USD 250 million, according to his latest financial
disclosure mandated by the Federal
Election Commission. Seeking the
White House in 2008, he spent USD 35 million of his own money, which is about what someone earning USD 1
million a year makes in a lifetime. So if the standard for running for
president is only being able to afford
a Pat Nixon-style ?respectable Republican cloth coat? for your wife,
then Romney never qualified as a
man of the people. Nor did John
Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt. But all
that has been known since the first
time that Romney sought political office by running against Ted
Kennedy in 1994. The political vulnerability that comes
from Bain was first exposed in that
1994 Senate race. As Michael Kranish
and Scott Helman tell it in their
biography, ?The Real Romney,? the Kennedy campaign ran a series of six
TV ads highlighting workers who
were laid off or forced to take pay
cuts after an Indiana paper-products
plant was acquired by Bain Capital. As
a worker put it in a devastating anti- Romney ad, ?He has cut our wages to
put money in his pocket.? All that is part of the package that
comes with Romney. In that 1994
campaign, Romney tried to explain
himself using an argument that cuts
to his continuing exasperation with
the failure of his critics to understand the ebb and flow of capitalism. ?This is
the real world,? Romney said. ?And in
the real world, there is nothing wrong
with companies trying to compete,
trying to stay alive, trying to make
money.? When Did the Bucks Stop? It is frankly
embarrassing that the dominant issue
in the presidential campaign over the
last two weeks has been?not the
economy, not taxes, not health care
and not the civil war in Syria?the precise date when Romney left Bain
Capital. Was it, as Romney has always claimed, in February 1999 when he
took over the troubled Salt Lake
Olympics? Or was it as late as 2002 as
more than 100 government filings
suggest? This is about as irrelevant a dispute as
can be created by the greatest minds
in political consulting working
overtime. And it has about as much
connection to the presidency as the
brand of shoelaces that Romney favors. What appears to have
occurred is that Romney remained a
lead partner at Bain in a limited
technical sense without making
operational decisions. But in the
exaggerated charade of presidential politics, the Obama campaign
magnified this Byzantine dispute over the intricacies of securities law into
heavy-handed (and ludicrous) hints
that Romney may have committed a
felony. The Obama team?s passion for the
picayune is rooted in a political
hunger for new stories about the pain
from Bain. The outsourcing of jobs to
foreign countries took off as an
American business trend during the period from 1999 to 2002. This was
also?no surprise?true at Bain. If Romney could be portrayed at the
helm of Bain during this period, then
the Obama campaign and its loyal s
uper PACs can call upon a whole new
casting couch of angry workers to
denounce him. Make no mistake, Romney?s fervent
defense of the fiscal manipulation that
is a hallmark of private equity firms
like Bain Capital is relevant to his
candidacy and his economic
philosophy as president. In the Romney worldview, loyal workers are
sometimes collateral damage. But that
is true no matter when Romney left
Bain. Hiding the Bucks: Despite modern
American political tradition and the
urging of Republicans from Haley
Barbour to Ron Paul, Romney has
refused to release any income tax
information prior to 2010. In a Tuesday interview with the National
Review, Romney doubled down on his defiant position saying, "The Obama campaign is looking for
anything they can use. ... And I?m
simply not enthusiastic about giving
them hundreds or thousands of more
pages to pick through, distort, and lie
about.? Granted, it is a safe bet that the Obama
campaign is not likely to nominate
Romney as the ?Taxpaying Citizen of
the Year? no matter what he releases.
But there is a larger principle here that
goes beyond whether Romney was legally evading taxes or parking
more of his money overseas. The penchant for secrecy afflicts every
sitting president?and cover-ups
often have nothing to do with
national security and everything to do
with personal embarrassment. (See
Clinton, Bill.) By defying the norms of presidential politics on income taxes,
Romney is suggesting that his style as
president would be to fight tooth and
nail against any form of voluntary
disclosure of information. That?and
not the fear that Romney was secretly investing his money in North Korea?
is what is so worrisome about
Romney?s expansive zone of privacy
about his personal finances. But let?s end on the hopeful thought
that these are the dog days of the
2012 race. And before long, maybe
the presidential race will pivot around
questions a little more central to the
lives of voters than the precise legal details of Mitt Romney?s relationship
with Bain Capital between 1999 and
2002. It will get better. Won?t it?