Did the Romney Campaign Create the Swift-Yachting Story?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 13 2012 2:32 PM

Did the Romney Campaign Create the Swift-Yachting Story?

What confounds me about the Bain Capital/Romney story's current iteration is that there's such a long, uncontested record describing Romney's ties to the company through 2002. In the Boston Globe's investigative biography The Real Romney, we get about half a page describing how the company's founder exited in 1999. The Olympics job came through. Bain Capital was worried that a Mitt-less company would fall apart. A hasty deal was struck to keep him on top of the firm's paperwork while he was on leave.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

So who gave people the idea that Romney had completely severed ties with Bain in February 1999? The Romney campaign! On May 14, bristling at the first Obama/Bain attacks, the Romney campaign (via spokeswoman Andrea Saul) sent out a kitchen-sink debunking statement. The argument, made VERY LOUDLY in bolded sentences, was that Romney "left Bain Capital" in 1999. The sentences in question:

The Bankruptcy And Layoffs At GS Industries All Occurred AFTER Governor Romney Had Left Bain Capital in February 1999. 
After Agreeing To Head The Salt Lake Olympic Committee In February 1999, Romney Said He Will Leave Running Day-Today Operations To Bain’s Executive Committee.
Fact Checkers Have Stated That The Facts “Exonerate Romney” From Allegations Relating To Any Bain Deals In The Early 2000s. 
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You can see how people got the idea that Romney was out, see-ya, exit-state-left when it came to Bain. But here's the weird part. The articles being cited clearly said that Romney had left the company but would provide some advice when it was needed. Here, for example, is the article referred to in the second bullet point.

Romney said he will stay on as a part-timer with Bain, providing input on investment and key personnel decisions. But he will leave running day-to-day operations to Bain's executive committee.” (Greg Gatlin, “Romney Looks To Restore Olympic Pride,” The Boston Herald, 2/12/99)

When you go back over the explanations the Romney campaign used to beat back Obama/Priorities USA attacks, you see them fumbling the 1999/2002 distinction like a retired NFL-er with busted knees. In late May, for example, Ed Gillespie (a Romney adviser and surrogate) gave Romney credit for all the jobs created by Bain over its entire history -- not stopping in 1999, not even stopping in 2002. Every time Romney's been hit over something that happened after February 1999, it claimed more definitively than it could prove that he had nothing to do with that stuff.

This is a truly bizarre scandal. At base, we're seeing a candidate get shamed because he took a (paid) leave of absence in order to successfully turn around the Olympics. But the way he described that decision in his 2006 book Turnaround made it clear -- he kept up some Bain Capital ties. "When I talked to my partners at Bain Capital," he wrote, "I opined that it wouldn't make sense for me to come back to the company at the end of my tenture at SLOC as I had following my [1994] campaign." They disagreed and came to a different arrangement -- not as much control as he'd retained in 1994, but not zero influence.

If only the campaign had explained this clearly. The reason that Romney's having trouble escaping this language trap is that it was built and baited by hasty "war room" responses.

UPDATE: I can't put the entire Herald piece here, for rights reasons, but here's a longer quote.

Asked why he decided to leave his post at the helm of Boston venture capital firm Bain Capital Inc., Romney replied: "My son Josh asked that same question . . . I think I'm either blessed or cursed with an overactive public service gland. Now and then it compels me to do things that don't make sense on an accounting basis."
He described the Olympic games as "one of the very few powerful symbols of peace on the world stage."
Romney said he will stay on as a part-timer with Bain, providing input on investment and key personnel decisions. But he will leave running day-to-day operations to Bain's executive committee.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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