First things first. Criticizing the way a politician ran a company at a time when he is running for office on that record isn't radical leftism, it's Politics 101. Unless any of Romney's rivals have called for him to have to pay higher taxes or be closely regulated by the government, then they have nothing in common with Occupy Wall Street and suggesting otherwise is a talking point that doesn't hold up.
A commitment to free enterprise does not mean supporting anything that any company does. It only means supporting their right to do it. Just as a commitment to free speech does not mean agreeing with everything that everyone says. It means supporting their right to say it. Believing that the total effect of free enterprise is better than any other system does not mean that individual companies are protected from criticism. There is a basic difference between criticizing how a company goes does business and calling for it to be regulated by the government.
That means Romney is free to create a company that runs euthanasia clinics in Bangkok, but when he runs for office, then the net social benefits of Bangkok Euthanasia R'Us will come up, especially if he brings it up himself. So if a company outsources jobs to China or sells drum kits to hyperactive four year olds, draping the flag of free enterprise over it does not mean that its CEO is immune from criticism. Free enterprise means the right to do something. It is not an innate endorsement of any and every business practice. It is certainly not immunity from having the net social benefits of those practices questioned especially when you're using those same net social benefits as a talking point.
Not that Romney sold drum kits to four year olds or euthanized anyone in Bangkok. What he did or didn't do at Bain Capital is the subject of some debate and has been ever since he ran against Ted Kennedy for the Senate back in the nineties. And the only truly noteworthy thing about his record with Bain Capital is how clumsily he has used it and defended it over the years.
Back in the nineties Romney was boasting that he had created 10,000 jobs and was running as the Jobs Candidate in Massachusetts. The number is now up to 100,000 and he's still running on the same platform. While that numbers creep might seem like Romney's jobs have some resemblance to Pinocchio's nose, the inflation comes about mostly because of the growing success of Staples, long after Romney had left the scene.
Can Romney take credit for the growth of Staples all through the years? He can if he makes the case that his backing and policies helped the company become what it is today. And that's the case he really should be making instead of wrapping himself in the flag of capitalism.
But Romney blew it back then retreating from the 10,000 number and he's wavering on the 100,000 number. During the Senate race the Bain association resulted in withering ads featuring striking and laid off workers that helped cost Romney the election. That same playbook is on the table at the White House and when it's played out then Gingrich and Perry riffing on Romney's record will seem like a warm soft hug.
Eighteen years down the line you would expect that Romney had honed his talking points and could at least solidly back up his numbers and his experience, instead of sounding like Obama talking about all the jobs he saved. Instead he managed to contribute another sound bite that will be showing up in every ad this election.
It's not the first time that Romney has screwed up this way. When pushed he has a tendency to say the wrong thing through a sudden outburst of honesty, whether it's "We can't have illegals around here, I'm running for office" to "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
It's the Kerry disease, and between his French, his flip flopping and his hair, Romney seems to have his own "I was for it before I was against it" problem. He compensates for his musical chairs politics by suddenly telling everyone how he really feels in the worst way possible. For now Romney hasn't generated his own, "I was for it before I was against it" quote, but the way he's going it's only a matter of time.
telling a crowd of people that you know what it's like to be afraid of losing your job is pandering. And it's weak bad pandering.
Romney doesn't need to convince everyone that he feels their pain. That's not something he can do and it's not what voters are all that interested in. They have had their fill of empathy and they just want someone competent at the helm who will fix things. All he really needs to do is sell himself as competent and back it up with a few slogans. But the way he has mishandled the Bain Capital question shows the same tin-eared approach all over again.
The easiest response to being accused of firing people is to ask how many people Perry and Gingrich have let go over the years in the public and private sector. The most comprehensive response would be a defense of his time at Bain Capital that dwells on the actual numbers and the opportunities. The best defense against being accused of profiting off failure is to show how you have actually helped people succeed.
Romney is back to being accused of putting "People Over Profits" as when he was running against Old Bad Ted. In the nineties he blew a lead over Kennedy and tanked the election because he was slow to protect his image. Romney's people still excel at negative attacks, but they're absolutely terrible when it comes to protecting their candidate.
Trotting out robotic talking points about capitalism is not doing Romney any favors. Within the party structure it is possible to take certain topics off limits through intimidation and ridicule, but in the general election, outside the party's echo chamber, those defenses won't work. If Romney can't take on Perry and Gingrich on the topic and win without conservative pundits taking Bain Capital off the agenda, then how is he going to stand up to Obama?
Wrapping Romney up in a capitalism blanket and hissing that all the mean men attacking him are dirty Marxists is not only eye-rolling silliness, it's also a concession that he can't fight his own battles or defend his own record. Taking an issue off the table in a campaign where just about everything has been on the table is an admission of weakness that will not protect him in the general election.
This isn't about class warfare, Marxism or Socialism. Romney, Gingrich and Perry are not poor men. This is about whether Romney can turn his record into an asset or will be stuck limping around with it attached to him like a chain. If he can't defend the productive and constructive value of his work at Bain Capital now and win over voters, then what hope does he have of doing it in the general election?
Plenty of time has passed since his last devastating collision with Bain Capital political attacks and they won't lose him the general election. They probably won't even hurt him that much. Not unless he lets them. But it's interesting to take a look back at the first collision between Gingrich and Romney. Back then Gingrich was trying to cut funding for the AmeriCorps beast, while Romney teamed up with Clinton to condemn any cuts by Congressional Republicans to the program.
Since then Gingrich, for all his deviations, has tried to be a culture warrior, while Romney has done his best to be all things to all people. The man who ran for the Senate in Massachusetts as being better for gay rights then Ted Kennedy and disavowed Reagan/Bush, reinvented himself as a conservative national candidate. A man who was for abortion before he was against it, who has been consistently inconsistent on global warming, on gun control and just about everything else needs some kind of identity. Something to tell us who he is.
Romney's biggest appeal and challenge is that he is a blank slate. Talking seriously and directly about Bain could change that. He did it before in this Harvard Crimson article from 1994. "Romney then returned in 1989 to the financially-strapped Bain & Co. to engineer its massive restructuring. While rebuilding Bain, Romney said he would resign if he laid anyone off. Now, five years later in his campaign against Kennedy, Romney uses his pledge as an example of job-making skills."
Romney has been taking the Bain Capital test for eighteen years. If he can't score with that much preparation time and put some passion into an explanation of what he did at Bain and what he believes he can do for America, then there is no reason to believe that he can win.