2:43 PM EDT, May 22, 2012
Newark Mayor Cory Booker was wrong and President Barack Obama is right: Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital deserves closer scrutiny by voters. Whether a brief television ad accomplishes this is another matter.
Presidential campaigns are seldom pretty. And this year's race is certain to be worse than most. The rise of super PAC spending and the prospect of tens of millions of dollars spent pounding on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's more inflammatory sermons or the creation of more websites devoted to the plight of the Romney family dog are especially depressing thoughts.
But if this election is going to be about the economy, business experience and job creation, then Bain Capital is fair game. Don't ask the Democrats about this. It clearly was on the minds of Republicans during the primary race.
Remember "vulture capitalism?" That was how Texas Gov. Rick Perry described Mr. Romney's time at Bain — and he coined the phrase just four months ago. Newt Gingrich said Bain's approach to making money amounted to rich people finding "clever legal ways to loot a company."
Mayor Booker says he found the recent ad about Bain "nauseating," but that may be a matter of style, not subject matter. Certainly, the Obama administration is not condemning all private equity firms. That's a point the president made clear in his Monday press conference.
Some of Bain's investments succeeded, and some didn't. Quite a few involved companies that ultimately went down the tubes — even as Bain made its profits. What's wrong with exploring the details of those transactions — much as it's important that voters be informed on Obama administration investments in GM or Solyndra?
Obviously, an ad that quotes unemployed steelworkers decrying "vampire" capitalism isn't exactly a dispassionate, objective look at the record. But so far, Mr. Romney and his backers have tended to sidestep the legitimate issue of Bain with blanket generalizations about the candidate's "business experience" and complaints that Mr. Obama doesn't have much.
It's not hard to see the rationale at work here: Candidates deflect criticism and try to make the debate about their opponent's failings. The concern would be that the more forthcoming Mr. Romney might be, the more Bain-related questions he'll have to answer. Better to brush them off, right?
Yet that kind of conventional wisdom seriously underestimates voters and their attention spans. It would be useful, for instance, for Mr. Romney to point out that the U.S. steel industry has suffered serious setbacks in the global market (just ask the folks at Sparrows Point) that transcend the circumstances of any one producer. Private equity's primary goal isn't job creation; it's maximizing profits for the investors, and sometimes that involves breaking up companies — or worse.
That may not sound pretty, but capitalism requires winners and losers. It's how the free market works. The effective and efficient succeed, and others are left in the dust. Sometimes jobs are lost in the process, and that's the nature of Bain Capital's work.
But why did some of the companies Bain invested in flourish while others did not? How did the candidate deal with those occasional failures? What obligations, if any, did Bain have to the communities affected by his decision-making? And above all, how does what Mr. Romney did as a private businessman translate to the very different job of being president of the United States? Those are the sorts of issues Mr. Romney should discuss, because they would have legitimate bearing on him and his candidacy.
Republicans are using Mr. Booker's "nauseating" moment on Sunday for a gotcha and want to paint his subsequent backtracking on Monday and Tuesday as evidence that he's under the thumb of the White House. But it also proves the Democrat's original point: Partisan politics, whether practiced by Democrats or Republicans, is often sickening.
Bain Capital isn't going away. Mr. Obama and his allies are going to raise it over and over again between now and November. Mr. Romney spent two decades there. That's an experience that deserves to be examined closely — particularly if the candidate is going to boast about his business acumen.
Surely, it's better for Mr. Romney to give his side of events and perhaps even teach the public about private equity and the important role it plays in the economy than to just ignore the testimony of those who lost jobs. A candidate needs to be able to handle criticism of his past decisions, and so does a president.
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