President Obama has unveiled his latest attack against Mitt Romney, focusing on Romney’s days with the private equity firm Bain Capital. But just as the Obama campaign was getting ready to launch their attacks, a curious thing happened: Mayor Corey Booker, the Democratic mayor of Trenton, New Jersey and a rising star in the Democratic Party threw a monkey wrench into the President’s attack plans on Bain Capital. Booker said on Meet The Press that:
I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, we’re getting to a ridiculous point in America. . . Especially that I know I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people invest in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses. And [Obama's attacks on Bain], to me, I’m very uncomfortable with.
Needless to say, the Obama campaign was furious with Booker, and he was later forced to recant his heresy, in a video that disturbingly resembles a hostage tape. But the damage had already been done, and Obama’s anti-Bain narrative appeared to be stillborn.
Despite this, the President has doubled down, saying that Bain Capital is “what this campaign will be about.”
Now, even former Obama supporter David Brooks is noticing just how poor a strategy the Bain attacks are for the Obama campaign. Brooks observes that Obama’s populism is painting him into a corner:
While American companies operate in radically different ways than they did 40 years ago, the sheltered, government-dominated sectors of the economy — especially education, health care and the welfare state — operate in astonishingly similar ways.
The implicit argument of the Republican campaign is that Mitt Romney has the experience to extend this transformation into government.
The Obama campaign seems to be drifting willy-nilly into the opposite camp, arguing that the pressures brought to bear by the capital markets over the past few decades were not a good thing, offering no comparably sized agenda to reform the public sector.
In a country that desperately wants change, I have no idea why a party would not compete to be the party of change and transformation. For a candidate like Obama, who successfully ran an unconventional campaign that embodied and promised change, I have no idea why he would want to run a campaign this time that regurgitates the exact same ads and repeats the exact same arguments as so many Democratic campaigns from the ancient past.
Brooks makes a very important point here: the Obama campaign is running a highly traditional Democratic campaign. They are using the politics of division to attract traditional Democratic constituencies: women (and by that mean single women), African-Americans, students, environmentalists, and the tony class of well-healed limousine liberals. The arguments that the Obama campaign have been making have all been targeted with a laser-like focus on bringing those elements of the Democratic base together in support of his campaign. Everything from the “war on women” to Obama’s pivot on gay marriage have been focused on that end.
But that’s a problem for Obama. Even he has privately admitted that he’s running against the Obama of 2008—but the Obama of 2008 managed to beat the tar out of John McCain and took a majority of the electorate in a decisive victory. He did it by convincing independents and even some squishy conservatives (like David Brooks!) that he was a moderate, post-partisan, post-racial, transformative figure who would get things done for the betterment of the country.
If Obama could rekindle that magic in 2012, he’d be doing very well for himself. But he can’t—because the 2008 magic was built on an image of Obama that has been dashed apart on the rocky shoals of his record. He can’t campaign as a post-partisan figure when he’s constantly blaming the “Republican Congress” as being a bunch of “obstructionists”—an argument that’s rather silly considering that the Republicans won because Obama pushed through an expensive and unpopular health care bill. He can’t run as a transformative figure when his signature “achievements”—ObamaCare and the stimulus—are not popular with the American electorate. Obama has a record now, and while he’s done his best to try to change the subject to something else, that record will be the issue in this campaign.
What Romney Can Do
But Obama still is running neck-and-neck with Romney. Romney still can lose, and he can lose big if he fails to adapt to the changing condition of the campaign. All one has to do is look back at 2008 to see how this can happen: after picking Sarah Palin, the McCain campaign was riding high in the polls, even beating Obama in most polls. But then the wheels came off of the McCain campaign: the media savaged Palin and the campaign failed to use Palin’s natural political talent in an effective way. When Lehman collapsed, McCain first said that we was canceling a debate and running to Washington to play the elder statesman—which he did, but only half-heartedly. McCain failed to come up with an adequate response to the crisis, and never recovered. He went from running ahead of Obama to being shellacked by him. The rest, as they say, is history.
So what must Romney do? He has got to start shaping his message now: and while he’s done part of that with his ads focusing on the state of the economy. But it’s not enough to merely suggest that the economy is a bad state— Romney has to make an at least plausible plan for what to do about it.
Here’s why I ultimately think Romney’s Bain experience is relevant to this campaign: Romney needs to make a connection in the voters minds between what Bain did—taking dying companies and fixing them—and what needs to be done for the economy in general and government in particular. Right now the Romney campaign is doing a great job of reacting to the President, but sooner or later (when the voters start paying attention to the race), Romney will have to define himself.
And here’s why the President’s Bain attacks play right into that: they’re opening the door for Romney to make this argument. For every ad that the President cuts showing someone who allegedly lost their job, Romney should have ads prepared showing the people whose jobs were saved by Bain Capital. Romney has to know that Bain would be a major issue in this campaign—as it was in Romney’s prior campaigns. If the Romney campaign doesn’t have a response ready to go by now, they’re in trouble. They may not need to run those ads yet (better to keep their powder dry for when it’s needed), but they had better have them ready for deployment.
And those ads should support the larger narrative: this country needs a turnaround artist. This country needs someone who will make government more responsive, more efficient, and simply better. And yes, that means cutting a lot of dead weight from government, including making sure that workers who don’t pull their weight can be fired. Romney has to make the case that old way that government does things is not working. Indeed, that the government has become just like one of those failing companies that Bain used to deal with: it’s losing money hand-over-foot, it has a dysfunctional management structure, there’s a lack of leadership at the top, and its customers (the citizens) are not happy with what it’s doing. Romney has taken those kind of dysfunctional organizations and turned them around before: and that’s just what this country needs.
The President can talk until he’s blue in the face about “vampire capitalism:” in fact, the more the President goes on the attack the further away from the post-partisan ultra-cool figure of 2008 he gets. Romney can use that to his advantage if he’s smart enough and nimble enough.
The President is unwittingly providing the Romney campaign with a winning strategy for 2012, as David Brooks points out. Even some of the President’s backers, like Mayor Booker have figured this out. Luckily enough for Romney, the President doesn’t understand how he can be outflanked. The real question is whether the Romney campaign can be deft enough to take advantage of the opening that he’s been given. If he can, he can put the President in a defensive posture—exacerbating Obama’s tendency to become whiny and petulant. John McCain’s campaign failed to do this—if Romney wants to win, he’s going to have to learn from that failure.
Whether Obama realizes or not, his attacks are opening a door for Romney. The question is whether Romney will seize the opportunity to use that opening to craft a winning message for his campaign.