Why is President Obama’s reelection campaign doubling down on its attacks on Mitt Romney’s business record at Bain Capital, despite blowback from some supporters? Because they might work.
While many voters recall an image of "hope" and "change" from Obama’s successful 2008 campaign, he ran as many negative ads as GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona—and sometimes more. The message in those 2008 ads wasn’t so different from the anti-Romney theme today: The Republican nominee favors the wealthy at the expense of the struggling middle class. Voters bought it.
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Lessons from two other campaigns also illuminate Obama’s strategy in going after Romney’s record at Bain Capital. In President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, the military record and foreign-policy experience of Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was nullified with strident criticism of his Vietnam service and changing position on the war in Iraq. Similarly, Obama is trying to take one of Romney’s greatest assets in an economy-focused campaign—his business success—and turn it into a liability.
The other race shaping the 2012 campaign is Romney’s defeat at the hands of Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994. The Indiana paper company that was the subject of the anti-Romney attack on Monday, Ampad, marked a turning point in that year's Massachusetts Senate race. After Bain bought the company in 1992 and used it to acquire a paper factory, workers were laid off and then rehired at lower wages and benefits. The company ultimately went bankrupt, yet Bain made millions. Ads about the saga helped Kennedy leap over Romney in the polls.
“Obama is absolutely doing the right thing," said longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who helped run Kennedy’s campaign. “This is a very powerful issue. I saw its power in 1994. Romney was unprepared to deal with it well then, and he’s unprepared to deal with it well now."
Obama himself stepped into the fray during a news conference at the end of the NATO summit in Chicago, saying Bain is not a distraction -- it's what the campaign will be about. “When you’re president as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot,” Obama said. “If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about.”
Still, Obama’s offensive strategy carries new risks. In 2008, his negative ads tying McCain to an unpopular president had a receptive audience, weary of Bush and the war in Iraq. This time, Obama is facing the headwinds of a punishing economy. And while favorable views of Obama have helped to offset questions about his job performance, a negative campaign could hurt his personal appeal and hand Romney the lead.
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, an Obama supporter, lumped proposed conservative attacks on the president’s relationship with his former pastor with the anti-Bain crusade during an interview on Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, describing both as “nauseating." Booker later released a video clarifying his support for Obama. Republicans seized on Booker’s remarks and a similar defense of the private equity sector from another Obama supporter, former Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, to highlight internal party discord over the Bain attacks.
In a new Web video called “Big Bain Backfire," starring (who else?) Booker and Ford, the Romney campaign framed Obama’s Bain offensive as “attacks on free enterprise." If the idea that Obama doesn't back the private sector catches on, it could reinforce Romney's claim that the president doesn't know how to fix the economy.
Still, the Obama campaign isn't backing down, with a top adviser, David Axelrod, saying on Monday that Booker “was just wrong." Shrum agreed and downplayed the remarks from Booker and Ford as fodder for Washington insiders only. The focus on the fallout from some of Bain's takeovers is aimed at laying the groundwork for a campaign that portrays Romney as a politician whose policies on taxes, Medicare, and health care would destroy the middle class.
“Bain is the foundation of the Obama campaign’s narrative arc," Shrum said. “They are going to tell a whole story about Romney, and Bain is not the whole story, but it is a common thread, because it can be tied to all these policy positions. The ultimate question for voters is, ‘Who is standing up for ordinary people, and who is on the side of a few?' "
While Obama didn’t shy from running attack ads against McCain in 2008, he didn’t go on the offensive as quickly as he has in 2012. He ran his first anti-McCain ad in early July, about one month after he clinched the nomination. The ad linked McCain to Bush, noting their support for “tax breaks for Big Oil."
While these anti-McCain ads were certainly negative in tone, they were not as sinister as the anti-Romney attacks. In one new spot, a worker at a Kansas City, Mo., steel mill taken over by Bain calls Romney a "vampire."
“The opportunity to define Mitt Romney keeps fading and the Obama campaign wants to make sure they define him before he defines himself," said Travis Rideout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University and the codirector of the Wesleyan Media Project, which is tracking the increasingly negative tone of the campaign. “That’s what most smart candidates do."
Voters expecting the Bain attacks to ease up are likely to be disappointed in an election this close.