The real Mitt Romney is finally running for president — but not in his own first television spot, a superficial checklist of issues which provides no insight into who he is or what makes him tick. It's the Obama commercial on Bain and the destruction of GST Steel that starkly reveals the real Romney as a vulture capitalist. And this is just the beginning of what we will hear about Bain, and of a narrative arc that will position Romney as the candidate of the few, by the few, and for the few.
The Obama ad is so powerful because, like the Ted Kennedy ads in Romney's losing 1994 Senate race, the story is told not by a smoothly modulated professional narrator, but by working people whose jobs and lives were shredded so Mitt and his men could amass their millions. One of the workers voted for John McCain in 2008 and for George W. Bush before that. Now these authentic blue-collar voices, these Reagan Democrats, are talking directly to swing voters — to folks who could be brothers or sisters, friends or cousins — in the battleground industrial states. It's a different kind of political media — gritty, unslick, and therefore quite convincing.
My then-partner Tad Devine and I conceived and produced the Kennedy spots in 1994. They hit the Massachusetts airwaves with devastating force. In that landmark Republican year, Romney had a slight lead in September, but he swiftly fell in the polls and then melted down in a televised debate that outdrew the statewide audience for most Super Bowls. On Election Day, the boy from Bain lost in a landslide — by 18 points.
This is just the beginning of what we will hear about Bain, and of a narrative arc that will position Romney as the candidate of the few, by the few, and for the few.
It was fascinating to watch how Romney responded as his campaign unravelled. In fact, he mostly didn't. He seemed paralyzed — a guilty guy caught in the act. In a token push-back, his spokesman alleged that we had "put words in people's mouths." The Boston Globe checked and slapped down the story. The workers were spontaneous and unscripted. No political consultant could ghostwrite the rebuke of a packer laid off after 29 years, who looked into the camera and addressed Romney directly: "If you think you'd make such a good senator, come out here to Marion, Indiana, and see what your company has done to these people."
The workers boarded a bus for Massachusetts and demanded a meeting with Romney. For days, he refused — which kept the episode in the headlines. When he finally sat down with them, he coldly said he'd consider their comments.
He wasn't ready then, but that was 18 years ago — and he had to know this was coming at him again in 2012. Newt Gingrich stumbled onto the issue in South Carolina, where Romney was routed. But it was never going to be as devastating in Republican primaries as in the contest with Barack Obama. And the presumptive GOP nominee once again appears unready or unwilling to answer beyond offering up ritualistic bromides about "free enterprise".
This is the false banner under which he campaigns — the claim that he is a job-creating businessman. The total has oscillated from 10,000 jobs to 100,000, to maybe not exactly that. But the abstract number, unsubstantiated and as soulless as Mitt himself often seems, is no match for a steel worker named Jack Cobb, discarded in Romney's profiteering deal, but sad and defiant now: "To get up on national TV and brag about making jobs… he has destroyed thousands of people's careers, lifetimes, just destroying people."
The ads shatter the candidate's fundamental rationale — that with his business experience in creating jobs, he's Mr. Fix-It for the economy. It's a thin rationale, but voters might have believed it. Now disbelief will deepen as the Obama campaign rolls out a dishonor roll of Bain's depredations. The campaign already has a website that state by state — just coincidentally the battleground states, of course — pinpoints other companies exploited and extinguished by Bain.
I suspect that Romney will eventually have to abandon his strategy of treating the election as a referendum and not a choice — and attempt to defend his business record in paid media. The 1994 outcome suggests that any other course is a road to defeat.
I doubt he will make an ad repeating his disingenuous and dangerous claim that Obama also cut jobs while saving the auto industry. It's disingenuous because the president saved GM and Chrysler — and Romney frequently did precisely the opposite to other companies. It's dangerous because if he hopes to compete at all in Michigan and Ohio, he shouldn't mention the auto bailout outside a confessional. His approach would have doomed the industry.
More likely, Romney will trot out workers — say, from Staples — to highlight jobs he claims to have created. The problem here is that during his tenure, Bain had two businesses. One was venture capital investing in start-ups. The other, which Romney drove, consisted of buying out a firm, hollowing it out, loading it up with debt, cutting wages — and making millions before the firm went belly-up. The one endeavor doesn't redeem the other: What's at issue here is not an accounting question, some mere matter of addition and subtraction, but the crass calculation of pillaging jobs and oppressing workers as a conscious business plan while occasionally grabbing a government bailout along the way.
Moreover, the response irresistibly invites a challenge: Romney should release the records of all Bain transactions from which he profited. He probably can't afford to because the picture could be pretty grim. Presumably, he's about as likely to risk this kind of full disclosure as he is to release tax returns for years when he may have paid little or no taxes.
There's a (literally) rich vein to mine in Romney's record at Bain. But it's just the beginning of the narrative arc because the Obama campaign will move from the vulture capitalism of his private endeavors to his failures as a public official and the unfairness of his far-right agenda.
Thus the financial manipulator who decimated jobs in the private sector was a governor whose policies left his state 47th in job creation.
The takeover artist who slashed health benefits for workers would end Medicare as we know it, subject seniors to the harsh mercies of insurance companies, and raise their costs by approximately $6,500 a year.
The mega-millionaire with his offshore bank accounts would slash taxes for the very wealthy, and everything from education to food safety for the middle class.
The rapacious Romney, who in business took a government bailout and then would have let the auto industry collapse, now rails against bailouts and calls for rolling back financial regulation for the Wall Street firms that benefited from them.
The list goes on. The narrative is compelling. We haven't heard the end of Bain — and we won't until the end of the campaign — despite the inexplicable comments of Newark's "Democratic" Mayor Cory Booker, who must be spending too much time cozying up to Republican Gov. (and potential running mate) Chris Christie. On Meet the Press, Booker equated the race-baiting, anti-Obama ads about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that were recently proposed to billionaire clown Joe Ricketts with Obama's Bain attack: "It's nauseating."
Well, Ricketts and his now-renounced smear job certainly was nauseating. But with Romney, what's nauseating is what happened at his hands to ordinary hardworking Americans thrown out of work so he could rake in the bucks. And what's worrying is Romney's austerity agenda that would drive the U.S. into a double-dip recession, which is what such policies have already done to Great Britain.
Within hours, Booker retracted his comments and conceded the point: It is Romney who has made his business experience the centerpiece of his campaign. Bain is the spine that holds the whole Book of Romney together. As one of the workers in that Obama commercial put it, "If he's going to run the country like the way he ran our business, I wouldn't want him there. He would be so out of touch… How could [he] care?"
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- How to be the star of a cocktail party where you don't know anyone
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
- California's epic drought
- 13 Urban Outfitters controversies
- Russia is stealthily threatening America with nuclear war
Subscribe to the Week