Mitt Romney, time traveller

It turns out the Republicans’ presidential candidate didn’t leave his money-making company when he says he did, nor did that company create jobs for Americans. It outsourced work off-shore. But most amazingly, the man who refuses to submit his tax returns to public scrutiny went back in time to resign from Bain Capital. No wonder the Democrats are sensing blood. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Who knew until last week Mitt Romney was such a clever guy? Smart, we knew, and obviously able to spin gold out of the straw of failing businesses, but able to beat the laws of physics as we now know them? 

Up until mid-July, everyone interested in politics in America pretty well understood that in 1999 Mitt Romney left the very successful company he had founded and owned, Bain Capital, first to rescue the failing and flailing Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, then to run successfully for governor of Massachusetts.

Now, out of the blue, we’ve learned that Romney can travel backwards in time too. The problem is that he has been under an increasingly sustained attack on his basic rationale for his candidacy – that is to say, he says he is uniquely qualified to become president because he understands the real economy, how jobs are created, how wealth is created and how economic growth is fostered. 

This argument is rooted in his career at Bain Capital, where many of the companies his leveraged buyout firm acquired showed sustained growth, earned some serious folding money for Romney and his team and – at least in the case of a company like the office supplies firm, Staples – showed solid growth in the number of people working there. 

The tiny fly in this ointment for Romney, however, is that Securities and Exchange Commission documents – a briefcase worth of required forms signed in quintuplicate and co-signed by legions of accountants and lawyers – clearly show Romney still was the CEO, sole shareholder and salary and benefits recipient from Bain Capital for three years after he has always said he had left his job there and sold off his stock in that money spinner. In strict chronological terms, then, this puts him in charge at Bain when some of the companies the firm had taken an interest in had started shedding themselves of US workers – and becoming, instead, what the Democrats are now labeling him as: Romney the “outsourcer in chief”. 

It seems that many of the lost jobs apparently ended up being done off-shore – in places like China and India, not Detroit or Philadelphia. Up until that moment, the Republicans had been yelling “foul” any time there was any talk of any job losses from Bain’s actions, arguing that whatever had happened, it was after Romney had left his firm so it didn’t count, except that now, perhaps, it does. Oops. 

The dirty secret, of course, is that Bain and Romney were never setting out to add to the nation’s store of domestic tranquility or the net number of employed persons – their goal, of course, was to make a big pile of money. There is nothing evil about that, but he and his party have been desperately trying to conflate the two things. In truth, Romney – and any investor in fact – would be just as happy to make lots of money by hiring hordes of people or the equivalent amount of money by hiring no one at all, but that latter proposition clearly doesn’t square with Romney’s rhetoric of being a job maker.

It has now become sufficiently squirmy and cringe-inducing that Republican advocates on the political talk shows have been trying to unbend this pretzel by saying that, regardless of what those pesky SEC documents seemed to show about Romney’s CV – he had retroactively resigned from Bain, effective 1999. Voila! A brand-spanking-new business and lifestyle concept has thereby just been born. 

Satirists, political commentators and wags are having fun with this – pointing out, for example, how convenient such a “get out of jail free pass” would be for everyone: make a business or personal mistake, invest wrongly, marry the wrong girl/guy, commit a grave social faux pas, whatever, just announce that retroactively you didn’t do it so all is forgiven – or should be. This, of course, is red queen from Alice in Wonderland stuff.

The bigger problem, of course, is that this has also become tangled up with Romney’s increasingly obdurate refusal to release more than one year’s tax returns – despite his father’s example of publicly releasing a decade’s worth of the things when he tried for the Republican nomination back in 1968, setting the gold standard for financial transparency. The problem with the current approach, however, is that it offers all those opportunities for speculation about what he really did with his money, now that it is already established he parked lots of it in dodgy places like the Cayman Islands – just like drug dealers, ponzi scheme punters and black market smugglers and arms dealers do.

Yes, yes, I know full well there is absolutely no evidence Romney is a drug smuggler, ponzi schemer or arms dealer. But, regardless, the door is now wide open for vague and increasingly nasty inferences to be made in political ads and viral messaging – exactly as the Democrats are now doing in some of the battleground states. In effect, Romney is being “swift boated” (as Republicans did so successfully against John Kerry in 2004) on the basis of his very own statements – or the lack of them. 

In fact, the Democrats’ newest ad, entitled, “Makes You Wonder,” is now airing in Pennsylvania and it goes like this: Male announcer: “Tax havens. Offshore accounts. Carried interest. Mitt Romney has used every trick in the book. Romney admits that over the last two years, he’s paid less than 15% in taxes on $43-million in income. Makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all. We don’t know, because Romney has released just one full year of his tax returns. And won’t release anything before 2010.” The ad ends with a video clip of Romney himself saying: “You know what? I’ve put out as much as we’re going to put out.” The same male announcer then intones at the fadeout: “What is Mitt Romney hiding?” (the ad can be seen on YouTube). Since most voters don’t make use of Cayman Island banks or whatever carried interest is, is true, false or just dripping with icky innuendo, this ad – and its future iterations – may well play to a sense of injustice, unfairness and anger about what the rich do to avoid paying taxes. And Romney is rich, whereas most voters are not.

It has become so unpleasant that veteran Republican strategist and politician Haley Barbour told ABC News: “The advice I would give Romney is: Who cares about your tax returns? Release ’em! We need for this campaign to be about Obama’s record.” But, so far at least, there is a growing chance that the Obama campaign is turning the race into a debate over the veracity and plausibility of the Romney narrative, defining him rather than letting him define himself for voters. 

Of course none of this means Mitt Romney’s campaign is a goner and that he is the reincarnation of Bob Dole’s forlorn campaign. Far from it. He’s a smart, savvy individual with lots of smart, savvy, even ruthless, campaigners, strategists, surrogates and advocates. And there is going to be a mountain of money for the campaign as well as all the allied superPACs and their money that will do their best to assail Barack Obama. And make no mistake about it, the Obama record does have problems, not least the fact that the economic recovery continues to limp along, barely in second gear. Laying the blame for all the country’s economic ills on the Bush administration will not wash with many, given the obvious fact that it has been nearly four years gone. 

And so, to help re-centre things and seize back the initiative, the Romney campaign seems to have been trying to shift the conversation to a national guessing game over whom he will pick for his running mate. There has been a particularly public beauty contest for the past several weeks, with what are effectively auditions by surrogates and would-be nominees flying solo or in tandem with Romney – in part to see how the personal chemistry works, to see if positions match – and also to ensure that there is a texture of synchronicity between the presidential nominee and a would-be veep candidate. 

Usually the final choice is unveiled just before the national nominating convention in late August. But, given the messiness of this year’s election campaign already, the rumours are flying over whether he will actually announce his choice in the next week or two to get the commentariat off the scent of his taxes, his Cayman Island financial bolt holes and a Bain Capital-was-he-or-wasn’t-he dance of the seven veils. Romney leaves shortly for a week in London, Israel and Poland. One theory is that he could well announce his decision before the departure to get two attempts – or more – at a new news cycle.

At this point, depending on whom you read and what day you read them, there are still lots of potential choices for Romney – or that the selection has basically been boiled down to one favoured name. One article in the New York Times came after a story in the Drudge Report had been triggered by Romney advisors floating the name of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice as a possible running mate – even though she has said several times she has no interest in the job. But this came after she did a well-regarded public appearance that had produced several standing ovations from her admittedly partisan crowd. 

Rice is widely experienced in foreign policy – something Romney is rather weak in – as well as being female, African-American, an ice skater of skill and a pianist of some note. She is, however, also connected to support for the Iraq invasion and the rest of the Bush administration’s foreign policy hangover, so maybe she’s not such a good choice after all.

Other most likely names are former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Ohio senator Rob Portman, South Dakota senator John Thune, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan. Others still in the mix continue to be Florida and New Hampshire senators Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte, as well as New Jersey and Virginia governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell. 

A recent MSNBC report boiled the problem down this way: “Go big or go boring? That’s the question for Mitt Romney and his campaign team as they consider a vice-presidential running mate to join the GOP presidential ticket. The cliché first rule in picking a No.2 is,  First, do no harm.  And that’s the lesson the Romney campaign likely learned from John McCain’s 2008 pick of Sarah Palin.” 

And so, the challenge is to pick someone who shines brightly but doesn’t outshine the main candidate, has no obvious baggage that will have to be explained away, offers political and personal aspects that Romney does not have, and simultaneously brings a presumed constituency of supporters Romney does not yet have firmly in his grasp. This is a tall order and so smart money is already pointing to the safe option of a kind of Romney-lite candidate like Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman, as opposed to more tantalising but risky rolls of the dice in the person of Rubio or Jindal. 

Rubio gives them a chance at enticing Hispanic voters away from Obama, although his experience at the national level is still very slim. Jindal offers a solid record as governor and might help draw some Asian-American support. However, his first exposure at the national level when he provided the televised Republican response to an Obama State of the Union speech several years ago was universally accorded a failing grade for gravitas and impact. 

Personally, I would love to see Condoleezza Rice or Marco Rubio picked, but believe it will end up being Rob Portman because of the personal chemistry and a decision that this must be Romney’s race to win on his own stead. Bear in mind, however, that someone like Portman has a past – he’s been a lobbyist for DFS, the international airport duty free shopping chain – and he has had close ties in the past to disgraced congressman Tom DeLay. If he is picked, count on that record to be examined under a high-powered microscope.

Regardless of who Romney picks as his running mate, however, the Republican campaign will almost certainly remain about whether voters in about seven or eight battleground states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire feel it is time for a change – or whether those voters sense that there is something not quite right for them in the narrative of Mitt Romney’s career and professional values. That, in turn, may depend on whether or not the current effort by Democrats – with more like this still to come – successfully paints Romney as someone who is squarely in favour of more for the rich and less for the rest. DM

Read more:

  • Romney Camp Denies Report That VP Decision Has Been Made in Slate
  • Handicapping a potential veep shortlist at MSNBC – offers a full rundown on the bios of all the names tabbed by “The Great Mentioner”
  • Republican Rob Portman, who could be a vice presidential contender, is a Washington insider in the Washington Post
  • New Obama attack: Maybe Romney didn’t pay taxes in the Washington Post
  • The Politics of Polarization, a column in the Washington Post by conservative writer Michael Gerson
  • Romney and His Time Machine, a column in the Washington Post by liberal writer Dana Milbank

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves as he leaves the stage after speaking at the NAACP convention in Houston July 11, 2012. REUTERS/Richard Carson


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