No one in politics is surprised that Mitt Romney’s personal wealth and business career have become a central point of the 2012 campaign. It has happened in virtually every race that Romney has ever run. But what has stunned both parties is how unprepared he has been to address the accusations that have dominated the campaign discourse for a fortnight, with no end in sight. The White House’s aggressive, often cynical, attempts to paint Romney as a secretive, out-of-touch plutocrat are defining the race right now and maybe pre-determining the outcome.
At issue: Romney’s refusal to release more than his two most recent tax returns and his inability to clarify the terms of his departure from Bain Capital in 1999. Despite an early warning in January, when rival Republican presidential candidates raised both of these matters in a last-ditch effort to stop the former Massachusetts governor from locking up the nomination, Romney’s campaign has been remarkably flat footed in fending off waves of attacks from the Obama campaign, which has used the one-two punch of television advertising and well-placed opposition research to dominate the dialogue.
Giddy Democrats and nail-biting Republicans agree that the White House’s strategy has been effective. There’s no doubt that by the horserace instant gratification metric – who won the news cycle? — Romney has been on a losing streak since the Obama re-election campaign launched a counter attack to distract from July 6’s disappointing unemployment numbers.
Democrats have fused the flaps over Romney’s missing tax returns and his years at the helm of Bain Capital to keep the Republican’s Boston campaign on the defensive. The question of Romney’s role at the venture capital shop is largely a bogus one. Romney left Bain abruptly in 1999 to take over the troubled Salt Lake City Olympic operation, maintaining his titular role as CEO and president on regulator filings through his negotiated final separation from the firm in 2002. Democrats have successfully kept the issue alive in part by suggesting, without any evidence, that Romney secretly continued to manage the company.
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A response team, headed by Romney’s close friend and former Bain partner Bob White and financial and political operative Matt McDonald, has been assembling facts about Bain and Romney’s role for months, but the campaign has failed to translate its research into an effective political response. They have been hampered by the severe reluctance of the current Bain partners to go on television and help put out the facts. Ironically, the Bain team’s desire to stay out of the fray, to avoid damaging the firm’s reputation, has only shoved it more front and center. In private and in public, Romney has taken umbrage at the assault and evinced frustration that the company he built is being used to bludgeon his campaign.
The tax returns are another matter. Romney continues to refuse to reveal returns prior to 2010 (his 2011 returns are pending, as yet incomplete due to the complexities of Romney’s holdings), arguing that they would only be used by the Obama campaign to attack him unfairly. His advisers insist that there is nothing explosive in the mystery filings. Still, anxious GOPers outside Romney’s direct orbit have been sounding the alarm; former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Congressman Ron Paul, and the editorial board of the National Review, have prodded Romney to get it all out and over with. But sources inside Romney’s campaign claim no such move is being considered. Romney strategist Stuart Stevens says that “Barack Obama has spent over $50 million to try and convict Mitt Romney of being successful. He’s on the wrong side of history with an old argument Americans have always rejected.”
Obama’s team disagrees, saying the Bain assault has given swing state voters a more jaundiced view of Romney personally, a central element of Chicago’s strategy. Romney nevertheless appears to be holding on in most national polls, and even making up ground in some battleground states with relentless attacks of his own on the President’s economic record. The Romney campaign believes that in the end, the Bain and tax return assaults will rile up liberal Democrats, but won’t trump the economy as the defining issue of the campaign for undecided voters. Americans, the campaign posits, don’t resent personal wealth, or care about how many years of tax returns are made public.
Maybe so, but from the beginning of this election cycle, Romney has told Republicans he is tough enough and smart enough to beat an incumbent president and his aggressive political team. On Bain and taxes, at least, Romney has failed his midsummer test.