It’s truly the nasty season in politics, as the Obama campaign has launched some blistering attacks against future Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, the controversial private equity firm he built and led from 1985 to 1999—or longer, depending on whom you ask.
A report last week in The Boston Globe gave Team Obama new fodder by pointing out that documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Romney as president and chief executive officer of Bain as late as 2002. He has repeatedly claimed he stepped down in February 1999 to turn around the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The timing matters, because some of the business failures and outsourcing of jobs among companies owned by Bain occurred during that period. So, if Romney was truly responsible for that, it would seriously undermine his case as a “Mr. Fix It” for the ailing US economy.
Team Obama knows it, and isn’t holding back. Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter declared on a conference call Thursday:
Either Mitt Romney was misrepresenting his position, which is a felony, or he was lying to the American people.
Romney demanded an apology, but President Obama and his campaign doubled down. Surrogates and campaign officials fanned out in attack mode across the Sunday talk shows.
Here’s Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on ABC News’ This Week with George Stepahnopolous:
Either the filing with the SEC is accurate and his personal financial disclosure is not honest, or that’s honest and the SEC isn’t, but both can’t be accurate.
Cutter herself was unrepentant on CBS News’ Face the Nation:
If you’re signing an SEC document…that you’re the president, CEO, chairman of the board and 100 percent owner of a company, in what world are you living in that you’re not in charge? If he wasn’t the head of it, who was?
On the same show, Romney campaign advisor Kevin Madden fired back:
During that transition from 1999 to 2002 where there was transfer of ownership to the new partners of Bain, that there was a duty to sign those documents. But…Governor Romney left Bain in 1999.
Another Romney campaign advisor, Ed Gillespie, told Candy Crowley on CNN’s State of the Union:
He took a leave of absence and, in fact, Candy, he ended up not going back at all and retired retroactively to February of 1999 as a result.
That term “retired retroactively” may take its place along with “self-deport” in the Romney lexicon of tortured phrases.
Still, Gillespie and conservative bloggers who’ve taken up this issue are mostly right.
Former Bain partner Ed Conard appeared on MSNBC Sunday morning and backed Romney’s claim to tongue-tied host, Chris Hayes:
…Mitt was gone. We had a management team that was working hard to manage the company. We had to negotiate the terms of Mitt’s departure, and in fact everybody’s departure at that time, and it was difficult to get any time for Mitt to even get him and his attorneys to do that, because he was so busy working on the Olympics.
This is consistent with findings of independent fact-checking organizations like FactCheck.org:
We reaffirm our conclusion that Romney left the helm of Bain Capital when he took a leave of absence in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics– as he has said repeatedly—and never returned to active management.
Even columnist Kevin Drum in the left-wing Mother Jones has had enough:
Romney took a leave from Bain in 1999, probably had a bit of contact with Bain’s management during the next few years, and was involved in both strategic and daily decision making only tangentially. In other words, not very involved, but not quite zero, either.
Sounds right to me. I’ve worked with many SEC documents and what’s in black and white is often only part of the story. It also wasn’t the MO of the hyper-driven Romney to spread himself too thin; he had been there, done that with Bain, and the Olympics was his nearly exclusive focus at the time—and a perfect jumping-off point for a 2002 gubernatorial campaign.
It’s fair game for the Obama campaign to hammer Romney about his business practices at Bain and whether it qualifies him for the presidency. And it’s working, big time, so they’re not likely to drop this theme.
But it’s really stretching it to label Romney a possible felon or a liar for simply stating his legal obligations at the time. Romney may be many things, but reckless he isn’t, although the more strident charges by Cutter and Team Obama certainly are, given what we know. The president should tell his people to dial it back a bit.