There’s a theory making the rounds that attacks from Mitt Romney’s fellow Republicans on his tenure at Bain Capital could actually help him in the end.
The theory goes like this: Mr. Romney, if he becomes the nominee, is very likely to be attacked on these grounds by President Obama and the Democrats. (This seems undeniable.) Maybe the attacks will be damaging to Mr. Romney and maybe they won’t. But since he’s going to endure them sooner or later, there is little marginal damage from them coming now.
In fact, it is claimed, it is better for Mr. Romney to deal with the attacks sooner, since it may make the public and the news media fatigued about the issue by the general election, and since it will give Mr. Romney’s campaign more practice in developing strong lines of defense to them. Some proponents of the theory have compared the attacks on Mr. Romney’s days at Bain Capital to those on Barack Obama’s associations with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., which drew considerably more public attention in the spring of 2008 than during the home stretch of the presidential campaign in the fall.
It’s a perfectly reasonable theory — but I don’t think it pays enough attention to the substance of the attacks and the way they are likely to be interpreted by the public and the news media. There are reasons that the comparison to the Wright story may not be appropriate, and why the attacks could in fact damage Mr. Romney in a general-election environment.
First, the attacks seek to undermine the core of Mr. Romney’s brand.
Mr. Romney has made his private-sector experience a major theme of his campaign, using it to form a contrast to the “career politicians” he is running against in the primary as well as to Mr. Obama. “I think to create jobs it helps to have had a job,” Mr. Romney has said repeatedly. He has argued for less government regulation of private enterprise, and has said he would repeal new regulations on financial companies.
It would be one thing if the substance of the attacks on Mr. Romney had to do with an ethical problem at Bain Capital or some type of personal association. This is not to say that voters would have no right to consider the issue, but it would be somewhat peripheral to the core economic message of Mr. Romney’s campaign.
But these attacks take a different tack. They are a critique of Bain Capital’s business model and, by extension, a critique of a certain form of free-market activity that Mr. Romney and other Republicans advocate.
Ads like “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” the 28-minute commercial put out by a “super PAC” that backs Newt Gingrich, adopt what appears to be a documentary style, but they present a one-sided view of the role played by private equity companies like Bain Capital, characterizing them as greedy and as lining the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the working class. Were it not for the couple of clips of Mr. Romney speaking French, one would be shocked to learn that the ads had been produced by Republicans, rather than by a liberal filmmaker.
Arguments over job creation are going to be central to this year’s general election. It will be harder for Mr. Romney to defend his laissez-faire positions if Democrats can roll out clips of Republican partisans attacking him. Already, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, the former head of the Republican Governors Association, has described Mr. Romney as a “vulture capitalist.” Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, has said that Bain Capital has an “indefensible” business model.
It will not be above Mr. Obama’s campaign to simply replay clips of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry making these remarks. Successful presidential campaigns have used such a tactic before. In 1980, for instance, Ronald Reagan’s campaign released a commercial that consisted of nothing more than a 25-second clip of a Ted Kennedy speech, in which Mr. Kennedy scolded the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, on the Iranian hostage crisis and the country’s high inflation rates.
Such attacks may seem more credible when made by Mr. Romney’s fellow Republicans rather than by Mr. Obama or one of his surrogates. This gets at the second and related reason they could be damaging to Mr. Romney. The veracity of the attacks is hard to determine, which means that voters and the news media will be looking at the behavior of partisan actors to evaluate them.
Determining how many jobs Bain Capital created or destroyed during Mr. Romney’s tenure is incredibly challenging. The firm invested in dozens of companies, and much of the documentation pertaining to them is not a matter of public record.
Moreover, some of the companies were in a state of financial distress. If, for instance, Bain Capital had invested in a company and reorganized it, trimming 2,000 jobs in the process, but the company might have shuttered entirely and shed 6,000 jobs without Bain Capital’s intervention, how should that be scored? Or what if it invested in a business that was on an upward trajectory, and the job gains came despite, rather than because of, Bain Capital’s intervention?
Such questions operate in the world of counterfactuals — in somewhat the same way that arguments over job creation from Mr. Obama’s stimulus package do. Those claims are very hard to prove or to disprove. In addition, there is a debate in academic circles about the role played by private equity companies overall and the winners and losers that they create.
When the truth behind a claim is hard to discern, voters sometimes use the heuristic of looking at what partisan actors say. If one side makes one argument, and the other side rebuts it word for word, the public may come to regard it as a typical partisan squabble or conclude that the truth boils down to a matter of opinion.
However, if one side makes its point unambiguously, while the other side hedges and does not seem to have its story straight, the public may conclude that the truth lies on the side of the group that has articulated its case more vigorously. This dynamic may have worked to the Democrats’ disadvantage during the health care debates of 2009 and 2010. While Republicans were nearly unanimous in opposing the the Democrats’ bill, Democrats were often fighting with themselves about its goals and its substance. Initially, more people supported the bill than opposed it. But as the debate unfolded, nearly all the voters who were on the fence came to take a negative view, and the bill proved to be quite unpopular overall. Whatever the weight of the objective evidence for and against the bill, the arguments the public heard were disproportionately against it, and they reacted as you might expect.
The third reason that the Bain Capital attacks are not comparable to something like the Wright attacks is that the story is potentially much richer from a reporting standpoint. In the case of Mr. Wright, there were videos of certain sermons, and there were questions about how close Mr. Obama was to him personally and to his church. But the supply of new information was soon exhausted.
By contrast, the transactions that a company like Bain Capital engages in are complicated, and it made dozens of investments. Each investment might constitute its own compelling story, some of which might reflect favorably on Mr. Romney, others less so. The longer that investments made by Bain Capital are deemed to be salient to the presidential campaign, the more effort financial and political reporters will make in pursuing leads about them, hoping to uncover a “scoop.” It is true that the public might develop a level of exhaustion with these stories, but they would be a target-rich environment for reporters, and Mr. Romney’s campaign would have to spend resources in making sure it manages the news coverage as well as it can.
If you want to make a counterintuitive case about the attacks, the better one is that the attacks could help Mr. Romney to win the nomination. Precisely because they are potentially damaging to him, Republican party actors may be quick to rally around him — hoping to declare the Republican nomination over by T.K.O. rather than enduring a 15-round fight in which Mr. Romney is heavily favored but may wind up bloodied. Already, we have seen some evidence of this: a major donor to Mr. Perry’s campaign “flipped” to Mr. Romney because he did not like the substance of Mr. Perry’s recent comments.
Meanwhile, it is unclear how compelling the attacks might be to Republican base voters. I am not going to render a prediction about whether they will work, particularly given the ambiguities in South Carolina polling and the fact that the South as a whole has long been fertile territory for economic populism. But one might attribute higher odds of success to attacks that more clearly originated from the right — those that attacked Mr. Romney, for instance, for his passage of a health care bill that contained an individual mandate, or that pointed out his supposed apostasies on social issues.
What’s unusual about the attacks on Bain Capital is that they might be more compelling to independent voters than to Republican primary voters. Politics ain’t beanbag, and sometimes the front-runner will be attacked by any means necessary, even if it might produce collateral damage. But rarely has there been an attack that had such uncertain potential to harm a candidate in a primary but such clear potential to harm him in the general election. Welcome to the strange world of “super PACs” and the undisciplined messaging that they can facilitate.