Romney insists that his personal financial disclosures to date have satisfied his legal responsibilities as a presidential candidate, and that voters are much more concerned about his plans to generate new jobs and revive the American economy.
However, Republicans are growing concerned about polls showing the effects of months of unfair attacks by the Obama campaign on Romney’s reputation.
Nervous GOP pundits are now calling on Romney to rise to the Democrats’ bait by more forcefully responding to the attack ads, and by releasing the additional tax returns they are demanding, no matter how politically damaging they might be, in order to put the allegations against Romney to rest.
However, recent evidence would indicate that Romney may be right in refusing to respond directly to the unfair attacks against him, because when he has proven that the allegations are false, the Democrats simply ignore the truth and continue to repeat them.
OBAMA REFUSES TO APOLOGIZE
President Obama has refused to apologize for the attacks or withdraw them, even though independent fact checkers have revealed them to be false. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column assigned four Pinocchios, its worst rating, to the Obama ads accusing Romney of overseeing the outsourcing of American jobs overseas while running Bain and as governor of Massachusetts. It condemned the ads as “misleading, unfair and untrue.”
FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that monitors accuracy in journalism and politics also found “no evidence to support the claim that Romney – while he was still running Bain Capital – shipped American jobs overseas.”
Nevertheless, Obama remained adamant, declaring, “No, we will not apologize,” for the false attacks, saying that if Romney wants to claim credit for his business experience at Bain, he also needs to take responsibility even for things which took place after he was no longer managing the firm.
OBAMA’S OUTSOURCING LIE
At a campaign appearance in Virginia over the weekend, Obama continued to make the false outsourcing accusation, telling his audience that Romney “invested in companies that have been called pioneers of outsourcing. I don’t want pioneers in outsourcing, I want some insourcing. I want to bring companies back.”
Speaking in Cincinnati Monday, Obama accused Romney of supporting tax policies which would create jobs overseas rather than at home. “We don’t need a president who plans to ship more jobs overseas or wants to give more tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas. “I want to give tax breaks to companies that are investing right here in Ohio.” It sounded good, but ignored the fact that Obama’s own economic advisers and the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission have endorsed the Romney tax policy as the best way to repatriate more than a trillion dollars in profits of American companies now trapped overseas by the current tax policy.
The brilliant campaign to discredit Romney, regardless of whether the accusations are true or not, has been expertly implemented by his Chicago-based campaign team. It has succeeded so far in diverting the attention of the media and voters away from this administration’s disastrous economic policy failures, while constantly inventing new issues to change the subject every time Romney mentions Obama’s dismal record.
A QUESTION OF IMAGE RATHER THAN FACTS
The Obama strategy has been working beautifully. As Bloomberg news columnist Caroline Baum pointed out recently, “facts aren’t the issue here. Image is.” Her advice to Romney is to start wearing his experience at Bain “as a badge of honor,” and proof that he can turn the American economy around, instead of rising to Obama’s bait, diverting Romney from pressing his most effective political argument, Obama’s failure as a president.
Some Republican strategists note that the avalanche of negative ads directed against Romney so early in the campaign may be a sign of panic by the Obama campaign, because the president is very unlikely to be saved by a sharp rebound in the US economy before Election Day. Jennifer Rubin, who writes a right wing political blog for the Washington Post, suggests that the Obama campaign cannot keep up its current 4-1 advantage in television ad spending for long.
Obama’s goal in ramping up his attacks so early in the campaign is to try to destroy Romney’s reputation before he can introduce himself to the voters at the GOP national convention, which marks the traditional start of the general election campaign. Obama also has more campaign cash to spend now simply because he did not have any primary challengers earlier this year, while Romney did. However, after the summer, Obama will be at a severe financial disadvantage for the remainder of the campaign. For the second consecutive month, in July, the Romney campaign generated far more contributions than Obama’s did, and the same trend holds true for the “independent”SuperPACs now supporting both candidates.
The intent of the Obama attacks is clear. “They wanted to define Romney before he could define himself, and by every indication they’re doing a very effective job of that,” said Jim Jordan, a Democrat strategist who was campaign manager for presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
According to strategists in both parties, focus groups with voters indicate that most of the public still knows relatively little about Romney’s background, encouraging the Obama campaign to try to create a negative first impression.
$75 MILLION IN OBAMA ATTACK ADS
Obama’s campaign has been almost entirely negative in its focus. Of the nearly $100 million worth of TV ads which the Obama campaign has run since the GOP primary campaign ended in April, three-quarters of them have criticized Romney rather than defended Obama’s record in office. Most of that ad spending has been concentrated in three of the most important battleground states, Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
Obama and his surrogates, as well as his attack ads, repeat the same discredited accusations. They claim that while Bain was under Romney’s leadership, it shipped US jobs to Mexico and China, and that Massachusetts state jobs went to India while Romney was governor. Obama’s supporters also continue to suggest that the simple fact that Romney has some assets in financial institutions in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands must mean that he is trying to hide something illegal or at least immoral that he has done, without offering a shred of evidence to back it up.
CONTROVERSIAL SEC DOCUMENTS
To counter the Romney response that he was no longer running Bain when the outsourcing of jobs took place, Democrats keep raising Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings listing Romney as Bain’s CEO even after he left the company in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympic Games.
To explain those SEC documents, Bain Capital issued a statement acknowledging that Romney “remained the sole stockholder for a time while formal ownership was being documented and transferred to the group of partners who took over management of the firm in 1999.”
All the available evidence supports Romney’s contention that he ended his active participation in managing the company in February, 2009, even though his effective retirement at that point from running Bain is not reflected in the company’s paperwork until some years later.
Democrats and even some Republicans agree that Obama’s barrage of attacks on Romney’s character and business record, even though they have been proven to be inaccurate and misleading, are beginning to have an impact on the latest polls. They were clearly a factor in the most recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press which found that Romney has lost ground over the past month on the question of which candidate was better able to improve the economy. Yet overall, the presidential race is still a tossup.
“Despite all of the negative advertising from the Obama campaign, polling numbers are exactly where they were before they started this onslaught,” the Romney campaign said in a memo last week.
THE LATEST AND LOWEST OBAMA ACCUSATION
The Obama campaign is portraying Romney as an unprincipled flip-flopper, a panderer to right-wing extremists and a greedy business executive. The accusations reached a new low last week when Deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter suggested that Romney broke the law. in Bain Capital filings to the SEC which listed him as the firm’s chief executive three years after he left it in 1999.
“Either Mitt Romney, through his own words and his own signature, was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the SEC, which is a felony,” Cutter said, “Or he was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the American people to avoid responsibility for some of the consequences of his investments.” The charge was then repeated by Robert Bauer, a lawyer for the Obama campaign. When Romney demanded a public apology for the accusation, Obama himself refused.
Romney’s campaign then issued a statement saying, “the facts are clear: President Obama has a pattern of running dishonest campaigns, and the American people deserve better.”
Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, wrote that while “campaigns are supposed to be hard fought, statements like those made by Stephanie Cutter belittle the process and the candidate on whose behalf she works.” He added that Obama’s accusations are, “so over the top that it calls into question the integrity of their entire campaign.”
THE BLOOMBERG ANALOGY
Romney sat down with five networks to respond to the Obama attacks. He defended Bain’s SEC filings as accurate, explaining that he relinquished all control of the firm while still maintaining an “ownership stake.” This is much the same thing that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done with his holdings in the successful financial communications company which still bears his name.
Regarding the Obama campaign’s suggestion that he might be subject to a federal felony charge over the SEC documents, Romney said in an interview with CBS News, “this kind of statement from the Obama team is really shocking. It’s ridiculous, and it’s beneath the dignity of the presidency.”
As Romney was making those comments, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who became a GOP hero by surviving a tough recall election last month, gave Romney some public advice reflecting the feeling of many Republicans who are counting on him to beat Obama in November. It was to get on offense, stay on offense, and “never fight a battle on your heels.”
THE RISK TO OBAMA’S STRATEGY
Gil Troy, a presidential historian from McGill University who has written extensively on the history of negative presidential campaigns, said that Obama’s hardnosed tactic reflects the “joy people take in not just pummeling political opponents but criminalizing them” in the post-Watergate, post-Iran/Contra era.”
But Troy warned that there are downsides to the strategy: “If I were advising the Obama campaign, I’d tell them to be careful about going legal because it can backfire on you. Romney can then get on his high horse and say this should be a campaign of ideas instead of false accusations of legality.”
Carl Forti, one of the strategists involved with pro-Romney Restore Our Future SuperPAC, suggested that Obama may be more on the defensive than it might appear from his aggressive attack ads. “I don’t think he’s got a choice. He has to try to change the dynamic now, but the polling indicates it’s not working. He doesn’t appear to be making any headway in the polls,” he said.
NEGATIVE ATTACK ADS STILL WORK
But Elizabeth Wilner, a vice president of Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising, disagrees. “There is a reason why people use negative ads – they work,” Wilner said. “People say they can’t stand them and it turns them off. But while [the ads] may make people feel cynical about the process and sour them on politics, they eventually create an impression.”
Obama is anticipating that the Romney campaign will retaliate by using the same tactics against him.
“Over the next four months, you will be bombarded with more negative ads,” Obama told supporters in Poland, Ohio, last week. “You’ve got these super PACs – millionaires, billionaires writing $10 million checks, just pouring – raining down on my head.”
THE LATEST CONTROVERSY: WHEN DID ROMNEY LEAVE BAIN?
An article published by the Boston Globe last week cited a Bain Capital SEC document filed after Romney left the company in February, 1999, that named him as the company’s “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president.” In fact, the standard “boilerplate” legal language of the SEC document does not reveal whether Romney was actually managing Bain at the time.
As noted above, it is common for a successful business owner, at some point, to turn over the day to day operations of his business to his management team, while retaining the title of chief executive at the start of the transition, primarily for legal purposes. This is clearly what happened at Bain, which, in a 2001 SEC filing, refers to Romney as a “former executive.”
Fortune magazine reported last week that certain offering documents circulated by Bain Capital to potential investors in 2000 and 2001 do not list Romney among the company’s “key investment professionals” who would be managing the money. Fortune concludes, “the contemporaneous Bain documents show that Romney was indeed telling the truth about no longer having operational input at Bain – which, one should note, is different from no longer having legal or financial ties to the firm.”
Legal experts in this field agree that the listing of Romney’s name as chief executive at Bain on the SEC documents cited by the Boston Globe was of no legal significance whatsoever, even though he did sign them after his effective retirement date of February, 1999.
IF OBAMA HAD ANY EVIDENCE, THE CHARGES WOULD BE MORE SERIOUS
From a legal point of view, the SEC documents represent ancient history. The statute of limitations on prosecuting Romney for making false statements on them ran out years ago. If the Obama campaign had any real evidence against Romney’s claim that he retired from Bain in February, 1999, they could accuse him of lying on a 2011 public financial disclosure form he signed as a presidential candidate.
It states, under pain and penalty of perjury, that, “Mr. Romney retired from Bain Capital on February 11, 1999 to head the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Since February 11, 1999, Mr. Romney has not had any active role with any Bain Capital entity and has not been involved in the operations of any Bain Capital entity in any way.”
Another document – the 2002 Massachusetts Ballot Law Commission report certified that Romney left Bain in 1999 to take over the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games.
That same report noted that Romney returned to Massachusetts several times between 1999 and 2002 to attend board meetings of three other companies, and for other functions. It does not mention that he attended any meetings at Bain during that period.
Taken altogether, the weight of evidence clearly indicates that Romney was not actively involved in managing Bain’s affairs while some of the companies it owned were outsourcing US jobs after he left the company in 1999. But even that is besides the point.
THE ANSWER ROMNEY SHOULD BE GIVING
Legal technicalities aside, Romney’s goal at Bain was never to destroy or outsource American jobs. He was not the enemy of middle class workers as Obama has tried to portray him. He was a businessman with a successful track record for rescuing troubled US companies. While not every investment succeeded, he clearly wound up saving or creating many more US jobs in the companies that Bain saved and built up while he was running it, than were lost when some of the companies Bain bought ultimately failed and had to be closed down, often years after Romney left.
If the Obama campaign does have any solid evidence that Romney lied about his retirement date from Bain on his candidate financial disclosure form, why haven’t they filed a complaint with federal election authorities? The answer is simple. The Obama campaign does not have such evidence. All its accusations against Romney are just blowing smoke to divert attention away from Obama’s sorry record.
WHY REPUBLICANS ARE WORRIED:
No matter how compelling the evidence of Romney’s innocence may be, his failure to push back effectively against the avalanche of negative ads funded by Obama’s primary campaign has many Republicans worried that Romney will be demonized beyond repair in the eyes of many voters before the two national conventions at the end of this summer.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says that he isn’t convinced that the Bain-related attacks ads will take root. But to the extent that they fill a vacuum created by Romney’s failure either to fight back or more aggressively talk about economic and fiscal issues, gives him reason to worry.
“The president’s team desperately does not want to run on his record, so they are desperately trying to have it about anything other than his record,” Walker said while attending a National Governors Association meeting in Virginia last week. He added that Romney’s “got to be forceful about fighting back.”
Walker believes that Romney needs to press the larger debate about the economy and the country’s debt and deficit problems. “I think he’s been very good in articulating the economy message,” Walker said. “I’ve heard bits and pieces but haven’t seen it collectively put together as a strong argument on the budget side.”
Walker pointed to 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated then-President Jimmy Carter. Reagan is remembered for the famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” That question helped sink Carter. But as Walker notes, long before Reagan posed the question to voters at the end of a televised presidential debate with Carter, he had campaigned constantly on themes of limited government and restoring American power and prestige.
“We knew what Ronald Reagan stood for,” Walker said.
ROMNEY STILL IN SEARCH OF A CLEAR MESSAGE
Walker urged Romney to develop a more robust message about how he would tackle the issues of debt and deficit. When the two appeared together in Janesville, Wis., recently, Walker said he was impressed with Romney’s economic message but added: “I think he needs to do more on the fiscal side. . . . He’s got to repeat it over and over and over, particularly on visits to swing states. He’s got to talk about it.”
Walker’s advice to Romney as the presidential campaign intensifies is to get back on the offensive, and to do a better job, specifically, of articulating a fiscal agenda for the country. As Walker put it: “Always be aggressive, moving forward. You’re always better moving forward.”
“Mitt Romney wants you to show your papers, but he won’t show us his,” Vice President Biden told Latino activists at the National Council of La Raza conference last week, simultaneously chiding the Romney’s support for the part of the Arizona immigration law upheld by the Supreme Court last month and his refusal so far to disclose his IRS returns prior to 2011.
Those calls for Romney to release more of his tax returns are now being echoed by former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who was a onetime GOP national party chairman, and conservative commentators George Will and Bill Kristol. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also said that Romney’s economic message was failing to connect with voters, but could not explain why.
THE COST OF SECRECY IS GETTING TOO HIGH
Romney’s campaign strategists, in his race to become governor of Massachusetts in 2002, and in the GOP primary campaign earlier this year, had always believed that he could withstand the political heat for refusing to give his opponents more of his personal financial ammunition to use against him. But now the thinking in Republican circles is that even an embarrassing revelation or two as a result of such a disclosure is unlikely to be as damaging as allowing the accusations being made by the Obama campaign to go unrefuted any longer.
Mark McKinnon, a former political advisor to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Senator John McCain said that Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns feeds into the Obama campaign’s allegations that Romney has something to hide, and that he has taken unfair advantage of the system to enrich himself.
“I think it’s pretty obvious there is something in the records that is problematic or the Romney campaign would have turned them over by now,” McKinnon said.
Obama’s campaign advisors admit that they are anxious to get their hands on more of Romney’s tax returns to provide them with new details his Romney’s Swiss bank account, his holding in a Bermuda corporation and his record at Bain Capital.
Obama strategist David Axelrod said last week that Romney is “the most secretive candidate that we’ve seen, frankly, since Richard Nixon.” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid told reporters that Romney “not only couldn’t be confirmed as a Cabinet secretary, he couldn’t be confirmed as a dog catcher, because you’re at least going to want to look at his income tax returns.”
ROMNEY CAN’T AFFORD TO WAIT
But until this weekend, when Romney finally started to respond more directly to the accusations and submitted to questions from reporters, his campaign had done little other than to accuse the Democrats of trying to distract the attention of the voters from a larger issue: Obama’s failure to manage the US economy.
Romney is a dignified figure, known for his honesty and ability to turn around failing businesses and he has made his money honestly and on his own. Yet President Obama, who has never run a successful business and whose first term as president has been a disaster for the country, dares to call Romney a felon. The nerve!
Romney must now complete that process with more personal financial disclosures, both to put all the suspicions behind him, and to thwart the Obama administration effort to besmirch his reputation and disqualify him in the eyes of the voters even before the general election campaign has begun.
The Washington Post, Bloomberg News and the Associated Press contributed to this story.