Democratic attacks on Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital LLC have been under way for weeks, and the election is still almost four months away. At what point does the Obama campaign open a new front in the ad war?
From the Democrats' perspective, Bain is like one of those all-inclusive resorts offering all-you-can-eat buffets along with a relentless schedule of games and activities. You never have to leave the island.
This strategy seems destined to have two distinct phases.
Phase I started with the attack on Romney for firing workers at companies that Bain took over. This was a reprise of Democratic strategist Bob Shrum's 1994 ads against Romney, who was running for Senate against Ted Kennedy. Shrum sent a camera crew to Indiana to interview workers who'd been laid off in the wake of a Bain takeover. Their unscripted pain wreaked havoc with Romney's poll numbers.
Obama followed the job loss attack on Romney with an attack for outsourcing jobs, a variation on the theme. We're in the midst of that stage right now, with charges and countercharges that Romney invested in companies that shipped jobs overseas to benefit from cheap labor.
Those two attacks represent only a fraction of the potential Bain bounty.
Pensions. Layoffs at some Bain-owned firms were accompanied by huge losses in workers' pensions.
Tax Rate. Romney's refusal to reveal years of tax returns has led to Democratic charges that he is "the most secretive" candidate since Richard Nixon, which I don't think they mean as a compliment. If Romney resists pressure to release his taxes, the attacks will escalate. If he buckles to pressure and releases them, Democrats will pummel Romney for taking advantage of low tax rates due to carried interest, capital gains, the deductibility of leverage and other breaks that benefit high-income investors more than waitresses and plumbers. And then there are words like "Cayman" and "Swiss," which are just not standard vocabulary in a presidential finance discussion.
Republican elites shut down these same attacks on Romney when Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry made them in the primaries because they alarmed donors and threatened to make collateral damage of party policy -- especially calls for additional tax cuts for the wealthy. The Obama forces intend to finish the job that Gingrich and Perry started.
In Phase II, Obama can equate the less savory elements of Romney's creative destruction with current economic conditions and the Republican platform.
In shorthand, each private act has a public corollary:
Firing workers = rising unemployment;
Outsourcing = low U.S. wages;
"Looting" pensions = privatizing Medicare and Social Security;
Preferential tax treatment for private-equity managers = a tax system stacked against the middle class.
Democrats can make a potent stew merging Romney's private and public selves. The goal is to wind up at a point where the economic problems and anxieties that Republicans intend to pin on Obama are instead coiled like a cobra around Romney.
Running as an incumbent in a bad economy, Obama needs as many breaks as he can get. Having Mitt Romney as an opponent increasingly looks like it might be one.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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