The Bain Quatrain

So to get a little distance from last week’s big presidential campaign discussion, how did Mitt Romney’s campaign get to where it is today on the questions surrounding his stewardship of Bain Capital?

First, there was the fateful decision to make Romney’s success (the money he made plus the jobs the firm supposedly helped create) at Bain the centerpiece of his own campaign. This decision appears to have been the product of several calculations: it reinforced the simplistic economic monomania of their chosen campaign message; it avoided the kind of detailed policy-based message that might be dangerous for any Republican; they didn’t want to campaign on his Massachusetts record because of RomneyCare and other major flip-flops; and they figured an atmosphere of unprecedented hostility to government and politics was the best possible time to campaign as a technocratic businessman.

Second, there was a major effort to draw a big line in the sand in 1999 and make everything Bain did up until then a supreme achievement of American capitalism, and everything after that irrelevant to Mitt Romney. This effort was compounded by the equally firm decision to draw another line in the sand in 2010 as the maximum period of exposure of Romney’s tax returns; his “golden parachute” arrangement with Bain ended in 2009, so there’s something about the income he received from Bain during that period, or about how it was generated, or about how it was invested (quite possibly through Bain-managed funds) that’s dangerous. But at this point, the period of time after 1999 (and even after 2002) is unsurprisingly drawing a lot of attention. As Josh Marshall noted today in a Tweet: “Romneys point seems 2b that Satan took over as CEO of Bain immediately after his departure; started doing awful stuff he’d never have done.” TNR’s Alec MacGillis more thoroughly laid out how the media are likely to begin looking at this shoe question of timing:

[H]ow should we judge his responsibility for Bain activities? Well, on a sliding scale. It doesn’t have to be black-or-white. We can judge him as very responsible for its decisions pre-’99, as somewhat less responsible for its decisions between 1999 and 2002 and as less responsible yet for its activities post-2002. But I would argue that it’s not out of the realm of fairness to hold him slightly to account even for Bain’s activities post-2002—as the New York Times reported a while back, Romney continued to get a huge cut of Bain’s deals this past decade as part of his retirement deal. And it is, after all, the company he founded and whose direction he set in motion.

Third, and this was the major thrust of the Team Romney pushback last week, came the tactic of going for the capillaries of the attack, declaring them wrong-minded, over-the-top, or refuted, and trying to take the whole subject off the table (at least in terms of media coverage) for the duration. Thus the Romney campaign tried to reduce the entire “story” to Obama operative Stephanie Cutter’s suggestion that if Romney had actually lied on his SEC forms about his role at Bain he would have committed a felony, while it was obvious what Cutter was actually saying that he had lied to the American people. But the important point here is that Romney’s campaign and its media enablers are trying to find some sub-argument it can have been said to have “won,” thus “resolving” the entire “Bain issue” until after the election.

Fourth, and apparently intensifying this week, is a drive to make this whole back-and-forth over Romney and Bain just a tactical campaign issue that can be submerged in race-horse analysis. So today you have some of Romney’s most reliable mouthpieces (e.g., Jennifer Rubin) shouting joyfully that the Obama campaign’s focus on Bain represents a concession that the president must pull out all the stops right this minute because his whole campaign is about to collapse. This is part of a “July Panic” for the Democrats, you see. At the same time, Romney’s own campaign is trying to create its own horse-race noise, partly through a fresh attack on Obama’s alleged cronyism, and partly through renewed Veep speculation speculation (with carefully planted rumors today that Mitt might even announce something this very week).

We’ll see if this last gambit works, but it’s important to understand that if anyone manufactured the furor over Bain, and largely directed the development of the “story,” it was the Romney campaign, from the very beginning. It remains to be seen if they knew what they were doing, have outsmarted themselves, or simply had no better options.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.