Posted by: Joshua Green on January 27, 2012
Mitt Romney is in a position he probably never imagined he’d find himself: struggling to win the GOP presidential nomination and under sustained attack over his business career. The trouble began after the New Hampshire primary, when Rick Perry accused him of “vulture capitalism” and allies of Newt Gingrich released a film attacking his career; it continued on Tuesday, when Romney’s tax rate of 13.9 percent became public, and both President Obama, in his State of the Union address, and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, in his rebuttal, delivered speeches that took on elements of Romney’s career. Obama’s entire speech implied that Romney held a set of values at odds with those of the broad middle class. Daniels underscored his tax problem by saying that government should “stop sending the wealthy benefits they do not need.”
Romney’s leadership of Bain Capital was supposed to be the basis of his candidacy, something that would present him as an attractive alternative to a novice president struggling to right the economy. Instead, it has become a glaring liability.
That’s astonishing in the context of a Republican primary, and it’s mainly his own fault. He’s in this uncomfortable position because he assumed that the value of his business experience didn’t need to be explained to Republican voters - that its virtue was self-evident simply because, as he likes to put it, he spent the bulk of his career “in the private sector, not the public sector.”
At one point, that looked as if it might close the deal. Romney felt comfortable enough to enter the race late and initially refrained from attacking his opponents, none of whom enjoyed his stature. Cautious by nature, he limited himself to platitudes (“I believe in America”). But by neglecting to present his Bain career in a way that made these skills seem presidential, he let others shape the public’s impression of him. And when his record was attacked, his only response was to claim defensively that his critics just envied his wealth - a claim that isn’t very convincing (they’re trying to inflict political damage) or attractive coming from a man worth something like a quarter billion dollars.
What’s puzzling about Romney’s struggles is that his executive skills at Bain have been well-documented, and to present them positively in a presidential campaign doesn’t seem all that difficult.
A good place to start would be his rescue of Bain & Company, where he began his career, and returned as CEO in 1991 when the firm was near collapse. Looking to cash out, Bain’s senior partners had sold their interest to the junior ones, but in the process overloaded the firm with debt, which pitted the two groups against each other. Romney convinced all the partners to give him authority and negotiated a deal whereby all were appeased, and Bain went on to thrive. Not a perfect analog to bringing Democrats and Republicans together to fix Washington - but not too bad of one either.
Instead, Romney has come to be defined as personifying the very worst kind of business executive. Gingrich, who shouldn’t have much ground to attack anyone, has been his most relentless and effective critic. Assailing Romney’s views on immigration yesterday, he said, “I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic - you know, $20 million a year of no work - to have a fantasy this far from reality.”
That characterization is rapidly taking hold. Romney has responded in kind by denouncing Gingrich’s highly paid Washington lobbying. But he still hasn’t shown an inclination to get his own career back a positive light.
Romney has enough money that he could very well dispatch Gingrich without ever addressing his own problem. But his candidacy probably hinges on his doing so before much longer. If he wins the nomination, his next opponent will have even less compunction about casting his career in the worst possible light - and unlike Gingrich, Obama will have the money to make sure the impression sticks.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.