In a press conference Monday, President Obama made it clear that he had not intention of ordering a ceasefire on his campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney's business record. "This is not a distraction," he insisted. "This is what this campaign is going to be about."
It's easy to see why he'd want it that way. The political calculus to the attacks on Bain Capital, which Romney led in the 1980s and 1990s, is simple: Point a camera at salt-of-the-earth blue collar workers, record their stories of misfortune following Bain-ordered layoffs — and turn Romney into the pink slip-dispensing poster boy for corporate greed.
But if the forumla seems familiar, that's because Romney's opponents have attempted the same approach in every single one of his political campaigns over the past 18 years — and so far, it's had a lousy track record. In fact, of the five different races the issue has been raised so far, advisers and political observers say, Romney has lost the argument over this business record only once.
Kevin Madden, a senior Romney adviser, attributed the attacks' traditional lack of success to the central thesis being out of step with Americans' understanding of free enterprise.
"Attacks like this are entirely at odds with an electorate yearning for signs of economic growth and improvement," he said.
But Republican strategist Rick Wilson said there's a more mechanical problem with the Bain message — namely, that it's difficult for the average voter to figure out how, exactly, Romney is responsible for the people in the commercials who lost their jobs.
"It comes across, at least to me, as having too many turns and twists before you get to the payoff," said Wilson. "Too many cases, too much 'A then B then C then X then Y then Z."
Some of this may be wishful thinking on the part of Republicans, but the fact remains that very few candidates have gotten lasting traction with attacking Romney's Bain record. Arguably the only one who pulled it off was the one who started it all: Ted Kennedy.
In the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race, Romney showed early strength, and many state Republicans thought he might actually give them a shot at unseating the legendary incumbent. But then the Kennedy campaign went on air with a series of devastating ads featuring laid-off workers at an Indiana paper plant purchased by Bain.
The Kennedy machine didn't stop there: As election day neared, Kennedy aides actually flew in some of the down-on-their-luck plant workers and had them pass out leaflets at public events where Romney was present. The conventional wisdom in the Bay State was that the approach ultimately buried Romney's candidacy.
But as Wilson pointed out, many Republicans remain unconvinced that the Bain attacks were the fatal blow.
"I'd argue that even in 1994, Kennedy won because he was, um, Ted Kennedy it was Massachusetts," Wilson said. "The Bain ads helped him but his name alone was a bigger asset there."
In Romney's 2002 gubernatorial race, the same Indiana paper plant resurfaced, this time with Democratic candidate Shannon O'Brien bringing in Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh to tell the tragic story from the stump.
O'Brien's campaign also aired an ad with a narrator emphasizing the point:
"Hold it Mitt Romney. 'Trust you on jobs?' Remember it was Romney's firm that bought an Indiana paper company. They cut workers' wages, slashed health benefits, eliminated their retirement plan, and instituted a 12-hour work day. Romney said, quote, 'This is not fantasy land. This is the real world.' And now Romney wants us to trust him with our jobs and our economy?"
But the efforts weren't enough to stop Romney from being elected Governor.
"In 2002, the attacks related to Bain didn't work largely because they weren't new and enough Massachusetts voters had developed some immunity to them since 1994," said Rob Gray, a strategist who worked on Romney's gubernatorial campaign.
And besides, Romney was running as a conquering hero, having recently saved the Salt Lake City Olympics in the wake of 9/11. Romney had a head start that wouldn't be overcome with an old-hat attack line most voters had already heard.
During Romney's first presidential run, Mike Huckabee got in on the action, questioning his primary opponent's economic experience — and his ability to understand the working class — in a number of interviews.
"Lot of times, the CEOs and the people at the top got some pretty huge bonuses and made a lot of money. A lot of people went home without a pension and a paycheck. I'm not sure that's what Michigan's looking for," Huckabee said on Face the Nation.
The attacks got relatively little attention, though, and in a campaign defined by debates over the Iraq war, concerns over Romney's business record weren't top of mind. When Romney did drop out, most pundits attributed his failure to his own gaffes, personal awkwardness, and John McCain's superiority as a campaigner.
Finally, Newt Gingrich raised the issue again during the 2012 Republican primaries. His Super PAC bought a 30-minute documentary titled, "When Mitt Romney Came To Town" spotlighting layoffs conducted by Bain at businesses across the country. Sensing an opportunity, Rick Perry jumped on the bandwagon, decrying Romney's brand of "vulture capitalism."
But if anything, these attacks rallied conservatives around Romney, who wearily bemoaned the fact that his fellow Republicans had resorted to "demonizing success" and throwing free enterprise under the bus.
As the Obama campaign now makes a run at the anti-Bain message, the open question is whether the electoral circumstances are different enough for the attack line to take hold this time. Gray, Romney's 2002 adviser, thinks they might be.
"The danger for Romney now is that for national voters, these Bain stories are brand new information to most of them, so they could have a 1994-like impact," said Gray. "I don't think the 'attacking' capitalism' defense that worked somewhat in the Republican primaries will work with a broader, less conservative set of voters."
But Madden, Romney's current adviser, predicted that the general electorate will have roughly the same reaction Republican primary voters had to the attacks.
"Obama is attacking business and industry at a time where the American people need and want businesses and industries both big and small to thrive and create more jobs and opportunity," he said.
Wilson said there may be a way to effectively hammer Romney's business record without looking like they're hammering business itself — but that Obama has yet to prove he can do it.
"This too frequently slips... into a broader attack on private equity, and thence to capitalism and entrepreneurship generally and that's a loser with millions of swing voters," he said. "Obama [yesterday] tried to skate the line on it, but most of his surrogates and all of his Congressional allies aren't smart enough to calibrate it properly."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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