The Bain migraine

The reviews from the pundit pack are in this week—and not since the British fleet turned back the Spanish Armada in the English Channel has there been a rapid response to rival the Barack Obama campaign’s assault on Mitt Romney’s business career.

“The attacks on Bain, outsourcing, and his investments are sticking to Romney like Velcro,” writes political analyst Charlie Cook in the National Journal. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin calls for “Prizzi’s Honor-style homage to the ruthless killing machine that is the combined White House-Chicago operation.” And at ABC News, Michael Falcone and Amy Walter note, “We have yet to find a GOP strategist who is happy with the Romney campaign these days. Not one.”

But before we commission photographs of the Obamas dancing at the 2013 inaugural balls, it is worth pointing out that we still have a Romney vice presidential pick, two conventions and four debates ahead of us. Presidential campaigns are invariably filled with dramatic ups and downs like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Today’s brilliant strategist is often tomorrow’s has-been. Bill Clinton was running third in the Gallup poll, behind both George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, in early July 1992. And, according to Gallup, Jimmy Carter held a 6-point edge over Ronald Reagan a week before the 1980 election.

But the Bain refrain is about more than politics, since the continuing controversy purportedly speaks to Romney’s character and credentials for the presidency. Or, at least, that’s the way that Democrats portray it. In truth, things are a bit more complex. Little of the rat-a-tat of charges, countercharges, attack ads, feigned outrage and snark have any direct connection with actually serving in the Oval Office. But there are aspects of Romney’s business career and wealth that do touch on the presidency. So let’s try to find the nuggets of relevance amid the partisan posturing.

The Buck Starts Here: When Romney ran for president the first time around, he stressed his conservative values and his problem-solving pedigree as a political outsider. In his 2007 announcement address, he barely mentioned his business career beyond a few vague lines such as, “Throughout my life, I have pursued innovation and transformation.”

But Romney 2.0 adopted a different approach for the 2012 campaign. A sputtering economy and a hush-hush approach to his gubernatorial record (Sh! Massachusetts has a health care mandate) meant that Bain Capital suddenly became the most appealing part of the Romney resume. Kicking off his campaign in New Hampshire in June 2011, Romney talked about his role in launching “innovative startups” and admitted, “Sometimes I was successful and helped create jobs, other times I was not.”

As is often the case in presidential politics, subtleties quickly gave way to braggadocio. In a September 2011 debate, Romney claimed, “My experience, having started enterprises, having helped other enterprises grow and thrive, is what gives me the experience to put together a plan ... so we can create jobs again, good jobs, and compete with anyone in the world.”

The result is that Romney’s quarter century at Bain became far more than a biographical accomplishment like Romney’s successful stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Suddenly, it was at the core of the Romney I-can-create-jobs-and-Obama-can’t political argument. The notion was always a bit of a logical stretch, but it seemed politically preferable to Romney than emphasizing his health care record as governor.

Piling Up the Bucks: Romney’s wealth is beyond the imagining of most voters—around $250 million, according to his latest financial disclosure mandated by the Federal Election Commission. Seeking the White House in 2008, he spent $35 million of his own money, which is about what someone earning $1 million a year makes in a lifetime.

So if the standard for running for president is only being able to afford a Pat Nixon-style “respectable Republican cloth coat” for your wife, then Romney never qualified as a man of the people. Nor did John Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt. But all that has been known since the first time that Romney sought political office by running against Ted Kennedy in 1994.

The political vulnerability that comes from Bain was first exposed in that 1994 Senate race. As Michael Kranish and Scott Helman tell it in their biography, “The Real Romney,” the Kennedy campaign ran a series of six TV ads highlighting workers who were laid off or forced to take pay cuts after an Indiana paper-products plant was acquired by Bain Capital. As a worker put it in a devastating anti-Romney ad, “He has cut our wages to put money in his pocket.”

All that is part of the package that comes with Romney. In that 1994 campaign, Romney tried to explain himself using an argument that cuts to his continuing exasperation with the failure of his critics to understand the ebb and flow of capitalism. “This is the real world,” Romney said. “And in the real world, there is nothing wrong with companies trying to compete, trying to stay alive, trying to make money.”

When Did the Bucks Stop? It is frankly embarrassing that the dominant issue in the presidential campaign over the last two weeks has been—not the economy, not taxes, not health care and not the civil war in Syria—the precise date when Romney left Bain Capital. Was it, as Romney has always claimed, in February 1999 when he took over the troubled Salt Lake Olympics? Or was it as late as 2002 as more than 100 government filings suggest?

This is about as irrelevant a dispute as can be created by the greatest minds in political consulting working overtime. And it has about as much connection to the presidency as the brand of shoelaces that Romney favors. What appears to have occurred is that Romney remained a lead partner at Bain in a limited technical sense without making operational decisions. But in the exaggerated charade of presidential politics, the Obama campaign magnified this Byzantine dispute over the intricacies of securities law into heavy-handed (and ludicrous) hints that Romney may have committed a felony.

The Obama team’s passion for the picayune is rooted in a political hunger for new stories about the pain from Bain. The outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries took off as an American business trend during the period from 1999 to 2002. This was also—no surprise—true at Bain. If Romney could be portrayed at the helm of Bain during this period, then the Obama campaign and its loyal s uper PACs can call upon a whole new casting couch of angry workers to denounce him.

Make no mistake, Romney’s fervent defense of the fiscal manipulation that is a hallmark of private equity firms like Bain Capital is relevant to his candidacy and his economic philosophy as president. In the Romney worldview, loyal workers are sometimes collateral damage. But that is true no matter when Romney left Bain.

Hiding the Bucks: Despite modern American political tradition and the urging of Republicans from Haley Barbour to Ron Paul, Romney has refused to release any income tax information prior to 2010. In a Tuesday interview with the National Review, Romney doubled down on his defiant position saying, "The Obama campaign is looking for anything they can use. ... And I’m simply not enthusiastic about giving them hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort, and lie about.”

Granted, it is a safe bet that the Obama campaign is not likely to nominate Romney as the “Taxpaying Citizen of the Year” no matter what he releases. But there is a larger principle here that goes beyond whether Romney was legally evading taxes or parking more of his money overseas.

The penchant for secrecy afflicts every sitting president—and cover-ups often have nothing to do with national security and everything to do with personal embarrassment. (See Clinton, Bill.) By defying the norms of presidential politics on income taxes, Romney is suggesting that his style as president would be to fight tooth and nail against any form of voluntary disclosure of information. That—and not the fear that Romney was secretly investing his money in North Korea—is what is so worrisome about Romney’s expansive zone of privacy about his personal finances.

But let’s end on the hopeful thought that these are the dog days of the 2012 race. And before long, maybe the presidential race will pivot around questions a little more central to the lives of voters than the precise legal details of Mitt Romney’s relationship with Bain Capital between 1999 and 2002. It will get better. Won’t it?