Cory Booker is a famous man of action. The mayor of Newark shovels walkways in heavy snowstorms. Recently, he rushed into a burning building to save a woman. Sunday night he was at it again, this time working fast to remove his foot from his mouth. On Sunday morning’s Meet the Press, Booker described President Obama's recent campaigns ads attacking Mitt Romney as "nauseating," comparing them to the foiled $10 million plan to remind voters that Obama was a longtime parishioner of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Booker, who is considered a possible presidential prospect some day, had spent most of the show boasting about Obama's achievements. But when you undermine the central thrust of the president’s attack strategy you must repair. By the end of the day, Booker had released a four-minute video trying to explain his comments.
Mayor Booker was wrong on both counts. Bain is fair game, and there's no equivalence between the Obama campaign going after Romney's record at Bain and the proposed super-PAC-funded attack ads attempting to link Obama to his controversial former pastor.
Booker's complaint was that the Obama campaign’s ads distracted from the important issues facing voters and that its tone would sour people on the election. In general, it’s a reasonable complaint; there’s plenty in Obama's campaign that saps voters’ hopes and distracts from core issues. But Booker picked the wrong target. Mitt Romney has argued repeatedly that his career at Bain—more so than almost anything else—gives him special insight into how to turn around the U.S. economy. It's well within bounds to put that career under a microscope to assess the truth of his claims.
In campaigns, strategists try to make character assassination look like death by natural causes. Booker was clearly responding to the thrust of the Obama ad, not its specific claims. But Booker should know this is how you know an ad is working: It sends a message without leaving any fingerprints. In this ad, a fired steel worker uses the word vampire to describe Bain. That turns the closing of the steel company—something Romney would describe as a downside of the business cycle—into a symbol of Romney's relentless search to feed off the weak. That gut-level message is what also rankled Obama's former car czar, Steve Rattner, and former Democratic Rep. Harold Ford.* (The Romney campaign has turned the criticisms of Booker, Rattner, and Ford into a Web ad.)
In a press conference Monday, President Obama said he was not attacking venture capitalists but Romney's specific stewardship. (Good thing, too, since venture capitalists whose companies sometimes fail donate to his campaign.) The president’s position raises legitimate questions—all of which Romney has been mum about answering. Romney has asserted that business experience will make him particularly qualified to be president at this moment, but what does that mean? Does it mean he knows how to create jobs, which everyone seems to think is the signature issue of this election? That wasn't really Romney’s precise job. His job was to maximize profits. He was very good at it. Bain even made money when companies collapsed and people lost their jobs, but his career shouldn't be defined by the things that went wrong any more than the president should be defined by the failure of Solyndra. Bain recently released a statement defending itself after the Obama campaign highlighted the losses at another plant once owned by the company: "Despite political attacks that emphasize the few companies that have struggled, the facts are that during Bain Capital’s ownership, revenues grew in 80 percent of the more than 350 companies in which we have invested.” Booker agreed: "If you look at the totality of Bain's business, they've done a lot to grow business and support business."
But what about the job losses? According to the Wall Street Journal, 22 percent of the 77 companies the paper analyzed from Romney's tenure went bankrupt or closed their doors. Another 8 percent lost Bain money. How did Romney decide winners and losers? What does that tell us about how he'll make choices as president? If the market dictated the winners and losers, what should people conclude about the way government might change under his stewardship? If this unpleasant portion of his business experience isn't relevant to the skills he'll need as president, which skills are relevant? Where does he draw the line?
You could argue that a person who has kept his eye on the ball (making profits) while remaining unsentimental about inevitable losses is just the kind of person you want at a time when hard choices must be made. Of course, Romney would never make this argument. It would be political suicide. His posture so far has been essentially pain free. He says hard choices must be made, but he gets nervous when articulating those choices.
It stands to reason that anyone who has been in a senior executive post should have some skill making decisions, and that is the central attribute required of a president. But in business you don't have to deal with politicians as much as you do in the presidency, and you don't have to coddle interest groups nearly as much, either. The more relevant portion of Romney's career should perhaps be his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, where he tried to apply those business practices to government. His jobs record there is more lackluster than the success he had in private business, but there also aren't ready-made horror stories with sympathetic characters. Another reason voters should probably spend more time with Romney's Massachusetts record is to see how he handled politicians of the other party. He'll have to work with them in Washington, which is more polarized than ever. How would he do that? Two of the three promises he makes in his first general election ad—reforming health care and the tax code—will not pass without the help of Democrats.
You might imagine Romney would welcome the chance to engage in this debate about his Bain career. Please: Ask me about this strength of mine. But Romney is reluctant for two reasons. He wants to keep the focus on President Obama's record, and he's not very good at talking about his business experience. He doesn't have the appealing anecdotes a successful small businessman would have. That became readily apparent in a conversation I had with two Ohio men who run their own businesses. They could easily drop stories about chats they'd had on the shop floor with their workers, the stress they'd felt worrying about bankruptcy, and the pride they took in never having laid off a worker. Romney is great at asserting but not very good at storytelling. He hopes that the assertion will be enough. Plus, a full and frank discussion about the trade-offs of capitalism is dangerous territory for a politician. During the 2008 Michigan Republican primary, when John McCain said a reality of the business cycle was that auto jobs were not likely to come back to the state, Mitt Romney clobbered him, even though he probably knew it was true.
If Bain is fair game, is there something about the Obama ad that is out of bounds? The ad received a "mostly true" rating from PolitiFact, which, by the standards of campaign ads, is like a horror film getting a G rating. If your political ads are not getting denounced by the fact-checking organizations, you're doing something wrong. That doesn't mean it's entirely clean: Romney wasn't CEO when the steel plant closed. In fact, one managing director, Jonathan Lavine, was there at the time. He is a major Obama contributor. Other Obama campaign ads have gotten worse ratings for truthfulness. One ad attacking Romney ends by saying, "It's just what you'd expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account." Making a candidate's personal decision stand in for a fundamental character flaw is a less substantive critique than the Bain attacks and more underhanded. That's why Booker was wrong about the Rev. Wright ads that died on the launch pad, which is an even more insidious version of the form.
Above the sniping about the ad, this moment highlights the central issue of this campaign. The president argues that the government needs to play a better role creating opportunity for everyone. What Romney’s business experience tells him is that slashing government and freeing the private sector are the best ways to create prosperity. He points to his career at Bain as proof of that. Cory Booker is wrong—this debate is relevant. It is a fight to define Mitt Romney, and it's a fight to define the election.
Correction, May 22, 2012: This article originally misspelled Steve Rattner’s last name. (Return to corrected sentence.)