What the Bain Attacks Are Really About

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks during a campaign "grassroots event" at James Day Park in Parma, Ohio, July 5, 2012.

We’re in one of those presidential campaign moments where the campaign “debate,” such as it is, is trapped in a hermetic system with an only indirect connection to the future of the country. Is whether Mitt Romney kept a managerial role at Bain Capital after leaving in 1999 to rescue the Salt Lake City Olympics really a critical question for voters? Probably not. Whatever direct role he may have had in certain offshoring or layoff decisions, it’s already quite clear what Romney’s business career was about: making money. Sometimes that was good for front-line workers, sometimes not. But Romney will have different priorities as President—not least because, even if you don’t believe that he cares about ordinary workers, his interest in maintaining public support and getting re-elected will pressure him to find ways of creating jobs and lifting wages.

The current debate is really about setting battle lines for the campaign. Above all, the Obama team is opportunistically—but also cleverly—shaping the political debate around a subject that’s good for them (heartless capitalism) instead of the one that’s good for Romney (the terrible economy). Chicago is trying to define Romney—and Bain, a company most Americans don’t really understand—on their own terms. They’re also after something deeper.
Attacking Bain, and Romney’s candor about his role there, is a way of defining the Republican’s character. Modern Democrats often bemoan the GOP’s alleged advantage in mounting character attacks. They haven’t forgotten the way the Swift Boating of John Kerry (unfairly) undermined Kerry’s credibility and patriotism, and the flip-flopping windsurfer attacks that followed. This week’s Bain offensive has partly been aimed at making Romney look slippery about a business record allegedly defined by selfishness and greed.

That’s one reason why the Bain offensive so much like those Swift Boat attacks (although we still need more information to conclude whether they’re any less unfair). But really the whole concept is the same: Keep the target on the defensive, define the political conversation, and raise constant new “questions” that can only be answered by the release of documents—in 2004, Kerry’s military records; in this case, Romney’s back tax returns—that promise to be complicated, hard to interpret and sure to open the door to still more questions.

And remember, we’re only 117 days away from the election. Every day between now and then amounts to a small battle in the larger war. If Romney loses a week to defending his Bain record, he’s just lost about 5% percent of his available time to hammer Obama on the economy.

But this week has been about the internal logic of the campaign. Yes, both candidates actually did make substantive policy remarks this week: Romney on various subjects, including education, to the NAACP; Obama on extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. But those policy forays were quickly drowned out by Bain, a topic less about the state of America than about how to win an American election.