Mitt Romney Has Lost Control of the Bain Capital Narrative

His record as a turnaround wizard in the private sector ought to be gold in the Republican Party, but somehow Romney finds himself on the defensive.

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Mitt Romney has been in politics long enough to know that his record is intertwined with that of Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he cofounded. That's why it's so surprising that the Republican presidential front-runner is struggling to fend off his rivals' attempt at a hostile takeover of his private-sector resume.

Every candidate runs on a record. Incumbent presidents run on the nation's prosperity and security under their watch. Legislators run on the votes they've cast -- on big bills and tiny amendments, on each "yea" and "nay" and... "present."

Businessmen run on their companies. Specifically, on every decision the company made while the candidate occupied a corner office. This surprises some neophyte candidates; in his losing bid for Senate in Colorado in 2004, brewing magnate Pete Coors, an outspoken gay-marriage opponent, was shocked when his opponents noted gleefully that Coors Brewing was sponsoring a weeklong gay pride event featuring a fetish ball and nude male review.

Attacks on a business record shouldn't surprise any candidate this year, when anger at Wall Street and government bailouts of the financial sector have animated activists on the left (Occupy Wall Street) and the right (the Tea Party) alike.

Also, Romney is no neophyte. He's spent two presidential campaigns crafting a story of his private and public record that sounds all-but unassailable for a White House contender. In it, Romney appears as the Turnaround Commando, dropping in with his suits-and-ties version of Seal Team 6 to save faltering companies, a scandal-tarred Olympic Games, a hopelessly liberal state, and now, America itself. The story starts at Bain, which reaped billions under Romney by buying distressed companies to pump up or tear down.

In their desperate final days before the New Hampshire primary, Romney's GOP opponents are spinning a populist revision of the Bain Story. It's the story of Mitt the Corporate Raider, wrecker of livelihoods, patron fat cat of Wall Street investors, and tormentor of working people -- a story that figures to resonate particularly well in South Carolina, which, unlike relatively prosperous Iowa and New Hampshire, has been battered by job loss during and after the Great Recession.

"There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said on Monday while campaigning in South Carolina, adding: "If you are the victim of Bain Capital's downsizing, it is the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina and tell you he feels your pain. Because he caused it."

In New Hampshire, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said Romney had shown "he likes firing people" while "I like creating jobs" -- a response to Romney telling a crowd, earlier in the day, that "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" such as health care, if the service isn't up to standard.

It's surprising that Romney, whose campaign has thus far been characterized by discipline, would hand his opponents such ammunition when he appears to be otherwise so close to locking up the nomination. It's also surprising that over several years of near-constant campaigning for the White House, Romney has not been able to cement his version of the Bain story in the minds of Republican primary voters -- let alone the independent voters who figure to get a heavy dose of the corporate-raider version from President Obama's campaign if Romney is the nominee.

For all the fanfare businessman-candidates often generate, they rarely win the White House. (George W. Bush was the exception to a longstanding rule of ex-executives who fizzle on the trail.) This is a particularly tough year to run as a Wall Street executive. Populist outrage runs high among tea party activists of the GOP base and among all voters in hard-hit swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

A lot of voters will hear the stories of Bain buying up companies and laying off workers -- whether those stories come from Newt Gingrich or the Obama camp -- and associate Romney with the layoffs that swept through their own factories or office parks. He'll be one of the jerk management consultants from Office Space. No one likes those guys. Romney must reclaim his narrative, and not just by questioning his Republican critics' commitment to free enterprise. He could start by recasting his Bain years in terms of results, not jobs created.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday in an in-depth analysis, Bain under Romney specialized in higher-risk deals than other, similar firms -- and for investors, the reward was high. Polls show that a majority of Americans are unhappy with the returns to their economy under Obama. Romney needs to persuade voters that the nation is in effect a distressed company -- a risky bet for any investor -- and that his resume qualifies him uniquely to turn it around.

Image: Mike Segar / Reuters

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Jim Tankersley is a correspondent (economics) for National Journal.

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