In a party often wracked by internal division, Democrats have reached consensus on a topic that once split them: The president should continue to aggressively challenge Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
It is advice that many Democratic strategists interviewed by National Journal offer unvarnished, convinced the Romney campaign’s flailing response proves it is an effective line of attack. What’s more, the criticism could be essential at a time of weakening economic confidence among voters who already harbor doubts about Obama’s ability to rebuild the country’s job market.
“I think the Bain stuff in particular is a real beehive for Romney that he’s sticking his hand into now,” said Tad Devine, a veteran of six presidential campaigns, including as senior adviser to John Kerry’s 2004 run. “I think the story is devastating to Romney.”
The newfound unity is remarkable for a party that seemed at war with itself over the topic only a short time ago. Party luminaries like Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell criticized the Obama campaign’s Bain-centered tack, calling it unfair and unbecoming of a president who promised to change the nation’s politics. Republicans crowed that the intra-party sniping proved criticism of Bain would brand the Democratic Party as an enemy of the free market.
Instead, the issue has become a difficult hurdle for Romney, who has struggled to summon a politically on-target response to quiet questions about the timing of his departure. They matter because of activities such as outsourcing that Bain invested in between 1999 and 2002. Romney has said he left Bain’s day-to-day operations in 1999 to run the 2002 Winter Olympics, but documents he signed and filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show him as the company’s owner and CEO over that period.
Devine said the position is similar to where the Kerry campaign found itself during the 2004 race, when questions from the GOP outside group Swift Boat Veterans For Truth threatened to undermine the senator’s Vietnam War record. The Romney campaign, he said, doesn’t seem to understand the questions won’t stop until Romney answers them fully.
“He’s got to have some kind of press conference; he’s got to subject himself to a level of scrutiny that will satisfy the journalistic press that the guy isn’t hiding anything,” Devine said. “Until he does that, what they’re doing won’t work.”
Romney’s best hope for recourse might be a backlash that the Obama campaign brings upon itself. That seemed to happen, at least temporarily, when the campaign suggested that Romney might have committed a felony when he filed the SEC documents saying he was at the helm of Bain. The Romney campaign pounced, and campaign officials in Chicago quickly backed off.
But the Obama campaign has retained its aggressive posture and added to its arsenal Romney's refusal to release more than two years of tax returns. The campaign openly speculated in an ad released on Tuesday in Pennsylvania that Romney won’t release tax returns before 2010 because he didn’t pay any taxes on some of them. That drew a furious response from Romney surrogate John Sununu, who said the accusation proves the Obama campaign is “clearly and unequivocally a bunch of liars.”
Democratic consultants are unconcerned about the Bain and tax lines of attack, which they see as parts of Romney’s record and therefore legitimate subjects for a campaign. “There have got to be a hundred more questionable attacks that have been made in past campaigns by Governor Romney and certainly by other Republicans,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic consultant. “If that’s his defense, he’s going to be in big trouble.”
The urgency behind Team Obama’s effort to raise questions about Romney's wealth and business career has increased this summer, with a pair of weak jobs reports reigniting worries that the recovery is stalled. That’s dangerous territory for Obama and makes it especially critical for him to convince voters that Romney isn’t a viable alternative.
But Obama would have pursued the same issues regardless of the ups and downs of jobs reports, said Margie Omero, a Democratic consultant. “We would be having the same conversation. This conversation is important because it’s Mitt Romney’s main credential.”