President Obama has evidently decided to make assailing Bain Capital the centerpiece of his campaign against Mitt Romney, the private equity firm’s former chief executive. Now the president just has to find some way of ensuring that his surrogates will toe the line.
Thursday evening, on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, the ultimate Democratic grandee became the latest left-leaning politician to express discomfort with the White House’s line of attack against Bain — which seeks to portray Romney and his colleagues as a pack of heartless corporate raiders. Bill Clinton was somewhat subtler than Newark Mayor Corey Booker, who said flatly on NBC’s Meet the Press that Democrats needed to “stop attacking private equity,” and asserted that such criticism was “nauseating to me.” But Clinton was clear enough: “I don’t think that we ought to get into the position where we say, ‘This is bad work,'” the former president said of private equity, speaking with guest host Harvey Weinstein. “This is good work.”
Clinton went on to say that Romney’s time in the private sector was of secondary importance: “I think the real issue ought to be, what has Gov. Romney advocated in the campaign that he will do as president? What has President Obama done and what does he propose to do? How do these things stack up against each other?” Still, he provided what could be a ready-made soundbite for the Romney campaign when he told Weinstein, “The man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
Clinton and Booker aren’t the only prominent Democrats to come to Bain’s defense. Former Democratic National Committee chairman and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called the president’s anti-Bain ads “very disappointing,” while ex-Obama auto czar Steve Rattner said, “I don’t think there’s anything Bain Capital did that they need to be embarrassed about.” And in an interview with MSNBC, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner took issue with the notion that Bain behaved somehow immorally: “I think Bain Capital was a very successful business. I think they got a good return for their investors. That is what they were supposed to do.” Warner, however, expressed doubt about the relevance of private equity work to the task of governing the country, saying that the presidency requires a “different skill set.”
Time noted the close connections of all of the above politicians to the finance industry: Rendell advises two investment firms, Greenhill Co. and Element Partners; Rattner is co-founder of the private equity group Quadrangle; and Warner founded a venture firm called Columbia Capital. Booker, meanwhile, is a northern New Jersey politician with statewide ambitions (at least): The fortunes of Wall Street can never be far from his mind.
Clinton, too, is tied to the world of finance through high-ranking former officials in his administration, such as Robert Rubin, the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs (GS) who became Treasury secretary in 1995 and took a top post at Citigroup (C) after leaving government. (In April 2010, Clinton said that Rubin and his successor at Treasury, Lawrence Summers, “were wrong in the advice they gave him about regulating derivatives when he was in office,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.)
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Clinton adopted a tone of personal familiarity with the private equity industry during his discussion with Weinstein. “There is a lot of controversy about that,” he admitted. “But if you go in and you try to save a failing company, and you and I have friends here who invest in companies, you can invest in a company, run up the debt, loot it, sell all the assets, and force all the people to lose their retirement and fire them” — precisely the methodology that the Obama campaign wants to associate with Romney in the minds of voters. “Or ,” Clinton continued, “you can go into a company, have cutbacks, try to make it more productive with the purpose of saving it. And when you try, like anything else you try, you don’t always succeed.”
Such a charitable assessment of the work done by Bain is bound to cause headaches at Obama campaign headquarters. It may even be a sign that the anti-Bain approach is fatally flawed — that the American elite is too enmeshed with companies like Bain for the Democratic party to effectively executive such a strategy. Already there are signs of a pivot by the Obama campaign, which this week began shifting its focus to Romney’s gubernatorial record, noting “Massachusetts was ranked 47th out of 50 states in terms of job creation during Romney’s tenure as governor.”