Does It Bother Anyone That Obama Is Playing Dirty?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 16 2012 7:42 PM

Obama Winning Ugly

Mitt Romney hopes voters are disappointed that Obama 2012 is nothing like Obama 2008.

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That is what's in Romney's record. The Obama team, in trying to make claims about Bain after Romney left to work on the Olympics in February 1999 is going beyond the useful record, which is just fishing. They've made a charge for which there's no proof, been slapped by the fact-checkers, and they've continued on anyway. The author of The Audacity of Hope would have no problem comparing Mitt Romney's private sector decisions about outsourcing to his public statements. But that Obama would want you to be able to actually prove that Romney made such decisions. So far the Obama 2012 campaign has no evidence that Romney made any substantive decisions—about outsourcing or anything else—after February 1999, when the bulk of the outsourcing took place. This line of attack is not aimed at figuring out whether Romney's past practices reveal what type of president he would make. It's an effort to discredit him.

With no actual evidence to support the claim, the Obama campaign has shifted its argument. This is about taking responsibility, they say. Romney's names were on several forms. He was chairman, CEO, president, and sole owner. Therefore, he bears responsibility, but he won’t accept it. The buck stops with him. 

This argument is both important and unconvincing. On the one hand, obviously it's necessary for leaders to take responsibility. A president, for example, cannot make excuse after excuse for why things didn't turn out the way he said they would. (Recovery summer!) This is why Republicans criticize Obama for blaming earthquakes, instability in Europe, and the ATM for the lack of a genuine economic recovery. You're the president: Own it and fix it. But whether a person deserves the credit or blame that comes with responsibility requires some reasonable expectation that they have responsibility and a reasonable evaluation of the reach of his domain. A president can't control Europe, which is why Obama is not loony to use the global economy to explain why the U.S. economy is not improving. Mitt Romney had no effective control over the company and so his inner feelings about outsourcing can’t be determined from decisions he didn’t make. 

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The Obama team goes from unconvincing to nutty when it suggests that because Romney was still getting paid by Bain, he provided tacit assent to the decisions the firm was making. This should not be a game the Obama team would want to play, for fear of opening all kinds of sticky questions. Was Obama providing tacit assent when he maintained an acquaintance with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers? Was the president providing tacit assent when he sat in the pews listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary sermons? No and no. 

The political point of the Obama team's attacks is to use a legitimate question to pry. Once you've gotten the press to treat your question as legitimate, even if there's no evidence of the initial claim, you can pick apart answers, continue to question, and generally create unstable air to cause your opponent turbulence. Romney has fallen for this tactic so well, my fear of flying makes it impossible to extend the metaphor without getting motion sickness.

What’s incredible is that the attacks are coming on these questions. This was Romney’s chosen narrative—that he has special business skills, expertise, and acumen. So it is odd that he and his team seem so flat-footed. Stranger still is that this is not his junior varsity season. He already had several clashes on this exact turf with his Republican opponents in the primaries. That was supposed to make him all the more ready for this highly predictable attack.

If Romney continues to stumble, it doesn’t just help the Obama campaign in the daily news cycle. It helps rehabilitate the Obama reputation: if Romney self-destructs, the Republican candidate will get blamed for it and President Obama can just put the whoopee cushion back in the drawer.

Mitt Romney does not want to have a full and frank discussion about the nature of post-Bain business arrangements because, even if it absolves him of any outsourcing decisions, his financial dealings will make him seem exotic and extremely unlike regular Americans. The same is true of his highly minimalist standard on releasing his tax returns. This truth has led those speaking for the campaign on these issues to seem rigid and uncomfortable. Their discomfort makes them seem like they're hiding something or at least not telling the full story. In that environment, when a new fact does emerge, it can seem revelatory, even if it merely adds detail and doesn't advance the story.

But Romney suffers in a bigger way that has nothing to do with the current discussion of outsourcing: He's never really offered a story to voters about how his career as a successful businessman will be good for us. Romney just asserts that he knows how the economy works and moves on

Sit down with most small-business owners and it won’t take long before you hear a story about how they bent over backward to save an employee's job or structured their health plan to make it easier on them. You never hear Romney tell those stories. Maybe he can't. Perhaps he is not that kind of businessperson. There is the one famous Romney story about helping his employee find his lost daughter. Amazing, but he might need a story that doesn’t suggest one heroic act for a good friend as much as something more sustained. 

Perhaps at the Republican convention Romney will reintroduce himself to Americans and take control of the story of his business career. Or, perhaps the Bain outsourcing stories will fade away in the coming weeks when Romney announces his vice presidential choice. That will take the pressure off Romney, but it will also rob his campaign of fresh examples of how Obama's attacks are yet another broken promise from four years ago. Given what a tangled mess these questions have become for Romney, that's a trade-off he'll no doubt be happy to take.