Barry Bennett wishes that he had not been so prescient. It was Bennett, more than anybody else, who most dramatically pushed Mitt Romney’s stewardship of Bain Capital into the 2012 campaign. He did that as a staunch conservative trying to sidetrack Romney’s drive to the Republican nomination during the South Carolina primary battle in January.
He produced King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town, a scathing 28-minute documentary that cast Bain as a soulless corporate raider and featured the faces and voices of those left jobless in the Bain wake. Under withering assault from Romney partisans and other conservatives uncomfortable with attacks on such companies, Bennett at the time warned his fellow Republicans that he was raising questions that should be answered before — not after — they crown Romney as their nominee. Referring to President Obama’s top strategist, he predicted then that “David Axelrod is going to have a heyday with this, and Republicans need to know this story before we nominate this guy.”
Well, welcome to the heyday, courtesy of David Axelrod — and courtesy of those many Republicans who so effectively silenced questions from Bennett and like-minded conservatives. Questions that Romney fumbled in his 1994 race for the Senate, sidestepped in his 2008 run for president and tried to ignore in the 2012 primaries have come to dominate the current phase of the GOP effort to deny Obama a second term. Recalling his January prediction, Bennett says today, “Unfortunately, it has come true.” Of the current attacks, he said sadly, “I don’t think we’ll see the end of them.”
Bennett produced the documentary, which has been viewed a stunning 1.8 million times, because he was so taken aback by what he read in an opposition research book put together by one of Romney’s rivals in 2008. But when it was aired and promoted by then-candidate Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, other Republicans were horrified and Romney posed as an innocent victim. “My view is, capitalism works. Free enterprise works,” he said when challenged by Gingrich in a Jan. 19 debate in Charleston, S.C. Wild applause and cheers erupted. When he added, “There’s nothing wrong with profit, by the way,” more cheers and whoops filled the hall. Sounding wistful, Romney lectured Gingrich, saying, “I know we’re going to get attacked from the left, from Barack Obama, on capitalism. I know that people are going to say, 'Oh, you should only practice it this way or that way.' ... I find it kind of strange, on a stage like this, with Republicans, having to describe how private equity and venture capital work.” More applause.
But Gingrich rode those attacks on Bain to a comfortable upset win over Romney in the South Carolina primary. But then he was cowed by suggestions that he was attacking free enterprise and lost his voice on Bain. It gave Romney a free ride on Bain and, it appears, a false sense of confidence that he would be able to brush aside just as easily all general-election attacks on his private-equity background.
It is a reminder that parties are always healthiest when they permit a full examination of a potential nominee’s vulnerabilities before the primary battle is over. Certainly, it was the case in 1988 when Democrat Al Gore took a tentative stab at forcing Michael Dukakis to defend his controversial prison-furlough program. But Gore was silenced; Democrats had no appetite for any discussion that could touch the third rail of race. Republicans had no similar hesitation. They took Gore’s very general criticism, gave it the menacing face of Willie Horton, and did great damage to Dukakis’ electoral chances.
Today, Bennett is working hard for Romney’s election and thinks his documentary helped prepare the candidate for the current onslaught. “It’s taken the Romney folks a while to get a response. But I think the response seems to be holding the attacks at bay,” he told National Journal on Monday. “The movie was pretty widely seen back in January and February. So they’ve had plenty of time to get their ducks in a row and we’re beginning to see that now.” But he said the campaign should be braced for an endless succession of “workers who have lost their jobs in one Bain deal or another on TV this fall with teary eyes.” He hopes Romney has learned his lesson that “a defense of capitalism and free enterprise is not going to be very persuasive to unemployed autoworkers sitting in Cleveland, Ohio.”
He figures that the Romney campaign team has learned what he learned from focus groups he conducted while making the documentary. “They told us that people are hurting economically who are Reagan Democrats or Independent voters that we need to worry about,” he said, adding, “They have pivoted away from the message point that his Bain experience made him a job creator. That was their messaging last fall, which made him even more vulnerable to these unemployed steelworkers on camera.” And, repeatedly noting that the Democratic attacks on Bain do not seem to have moved the national poll numbers, he takes some pride that his film toughened up Romney.
“The attack had a great deal of benefit to the Romney campaign,” Bennett said. “It gave them something to rally around and a lot of people came to their defense and it helped them push through the primary.... We got the issue aired and I think we did make Romney a stronger candidate because of this.”