If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently – warning: never pay attention to the news – you probably heard about the latest controversy to erupt over Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
It started when the Boston Globe released information indicating that Mitt Romney continued to sign documents filed with the SEC after he supposedly departed Bain; Romney fired back, claimed to have held no managerial role after his departure in 1999, and demanded an apology from Obama.
Both sides are missing the point – but in entirely different ways.
But first, let’s go back to Bain’s record from 1999-2002: Why is Obama so eager to pin this period on Romney’s leadership, and why is Romney so quick to deny any managerial involvement at this time? Because from 1999-2002, Bain was busy laying off workers, outsourcing jobs, and generally making decisions that do not look good on a presidential resume.
But here’s where Obama’s campaign is going off message: The argument shouldn’t be about when Romney left Bain, what specific decisions he made, and who he was responsible for hiring. Yes, these details can make for easy political points – which is why they’re being trotted out – but what’s really important is the simple fact that Romney. was. an. executive. at. Bain.
It doesn’t matter whether Romney exercised any control over Bain between 1999 and 2002, or whether he made those specific unsavory decisions. At the end of the day, his qualifications for President rest on his accomplishments at Bain – and those layoffs, that outsourcing, and so on, are precisely what companies like Bain do: Their goal is not to address the needs of all stakeholders, but to create value for their shareholders.
Yet somehow, Romney’s tenure at Bain has turned into a Republican talking point. Here’s Rudy Giuliani explaining why Mitt would make a better president than Obama (without a single mention of 9/11!):
So, what did [Obama] have to do? He’s got to distort, he’s got to misrepresent, he’s got to do everything he can to try to tar, you know, Mitt Romney, who it just happens to be was an enormously successful businessman. So, I mean, if Mitt Romney could have the same success for us in America that he had for Bain Capital and their investors, we would be in great shape, wouldn’t we?
Giuliani suggests that Romney might have the same success for ‘us in America’ that he had for ‘Bain Capital and their investors’. It’s easy to see why he would be enamored with this idea; as Bill Clinton put it, Romney’s track record as a venture capitalist is sterling.
But Giuliani’s suggestion is absurd on its face: take a moment to consider whether those investment skills really transfer to a job where your goal is to produce positive outcomes for all American stakeholders, not just shareholders; there’s little reason to believe they do. Romney’s skill at extracting every drop of value from a beleaguered subsidiary bears little resemblance to what he’d be asked to do from his perch in the Oval Office.
And now we come to the reason Romney’s campaign is missing the point: because it’s in his interest to do so; to get the debates bogged down in minutiae; to make Obama look like a bad guy for even bringing this up; and to avoid any real discussion of what happens at Bain, and companies like it. By attempting to limit the national debate to the years he was an active executive – let’s say, for the sake of argument, only until 1999 – Romney can plausibly claim he would make an excellent Economist-in-Chief. But the same process that brought him so much success in the years prior to his departure led to all manner of unsavory consequences after he left: [and I don’t need to repeat the list here].
Romney could be the world’s greatest venture capitalist, and any signatures that appeared after 1999 could turn out to be forgeries, but nothing could negate the simple fact that Mitt Romney polished his resume as a venture capitalist. Doesn’t matter when, doesn’t matter how well. Venture capitalist. The Obama campaign would do well to focus on that.