Is Attacking Bain Capital a Policy Argument?

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The Obama campaign is straining to argue that Romney's business record is about more than greed, but it's a difficult case to make.

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The Obama campaign has been stepping up its attacks on Mitt Romney's business record in recent days, first unveiling a two-minute television ad that aired in swing states, then dispatching Vice President Biden to Ohio on Wednesday to press the case against Bain Capital.

"In the 1990s, there was a steel mill in Kansas City, Missouri," Biden told the crowd in Youngstown. "It had been in business since 1888. Then Romney and his partners bought the company. Eight years later it went bankrupt." In the end, Biden said, Romney and his partners walked away with millions, while workers lost their jobs and benefits.

"Romney made sure the guys on top got to play by a separate set of rules, he ran massive debts, and the middle class lost," Biden said. "And folks, he thinks this experience will help our economy?"

The attacks on Bain, the private-equity firm Romney co-founded in 1984 and left in 1999, have been a remarkably consistent feature of Romney's political career. From his failed 1994 Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy to the 2012 South Carolina Republican primary to today, they've always taken the same form: Comments by, or descriptions of, working-class folks from the heartland, talking about how Romney's company took away their livelihood.

On an emotional level, the impact of these testimonials is undeniable. Almost everyone can relate to the precarious feeling of their fate being in someone else's hands job-wise; while Romney loves to tell the stories of plucky entrepreneurs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 11 percent of American workers are self-employed. For the rest of us, it's up to a boss, be it a small-business owner or a distant executive, whether our paychecks keep coming. Romney has claimed he once feared getting a pink slip, but between his gilded upbringing and the way he rocketed to wealth straight out of business school, it's hard to believe he's ever truly felt that kind of anxiety.

But the Obama campaign increasingly is couching the Bain attacks as a critique of Romney's economic policies. This is both a harder case to make and a necessary one in political terms. Polls consistently show voters give Romney the edge when it comes to which candidate they think would better steer the economy, the issue more than any other on which the election is likely to turn. But as Biden showed in his speech, the parallel between the way Romney ran his company and the way he might run the government is at best a strained and sloppy metaphor -- that he "ran massive debts" by leveraging assets in the private sector doesn't at all prove that he'd increase the deficit as president. (If there's a nexus between that policy plank and corporate debt, you might as well say we could have guessed Obama would run up the deficit because he had a mortgage on his house.) To be sure, Romney invites this treatment when he claims that his private-sector job-creation is a proxy for the job creation his policies would encourage if he's elected. But it's Romney's plans for major, across-the-board tax cuts without corresponding cuts in spending that make the case he'll be no better than Obama on deficits, not his Bain record.

The Obama campaign seems to recognize that the policy point the Bain story is meant to convey hasn't quite taken root. On Wednesday, Stephanie Cutter, the president's deputy campaign manager, hosted a conference call along with two former employees of companies bought and shuttered by Bain. The call's ostensible subject: "Mitt Romney's Business Philosophy at Bain Capital and His Current Economic Policy Positions."

"No one is challenging Romney's right to run his business as he saw fit. No one is questioning the private equity industry," Cutter said. Some of the president's own donors from the private-equity industry have come forward in recent days, however, to take issue with the attacks on Bain, and it's easy to see why Democratic investors would object: Obama's trying to make a case that the way the industry operates is a proxy for right-wing economic policies.

What it's really about, Cutter continued, is "whether the lessons and values Romney drew from his experience in business are the values we want in a president." One of the laid-off workers on the call, Randy Johnson, put it this way: "What kind of person likes to boast about firing people? What kind of person would get up on television and say something like that?" he said. "How can a person like that go anywhere near the White House?"

That, not policy, is what the attacks on Bain are really about: what kind of person Romney is. It's about character -- whether he feels the pain of average folks or is instead seen as callous and greedy. It's yet another in the seemingly endless litany of depictions of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy. Romney has tried to engage the Bain critique on this level, issuing a video featuring out-of-work Americans and telling more stories about regular people on the campaign trail. But he hasn't done a very effective job fending off the Bain critique, and maybe this is why: The idea that he lacks empathy has become so deeply embedded it's nearly impossible to shake. When it comes to policy planning, though, people may be more inclined to believe him.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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