WASHINGTON -- It takes perverse talent to turn a two-day mini-story into a major three-week distraction. But that is precisely what Mitt Romney's campaign has done with a June 21 story in the Washington Post. As a result, they're losing valuable media time playing defense when they should be using every waking second and news cycle to remind voters about how crappy the economy is and why President Barack Obama should be blamed for it.
First, here is what the Romney camp did wrong. They screwed up even before the Post story appeared, by stiffing the paper and not giving the reporter answers to questions about Romney and his company Bain Capital. Bain had invested in companies that were developing business in domestic outsourcing and foreign offshoring of production costs. But rather than answer, Bain issued a bland non-statement. If Romney and Bain had engaged on the story in advance, they might have been able to explain the difference between outsourcing and offshoring. They also might have been able to point out that this was a small part of the business, and an unavoidable trend that, in fact, protected many American jobs by making the American-based companies in question more efficient.
The Romney camp in Boston waited a full six days to hit the alarm box after the story was published, and long after the Obama camp took the headline and facts in the story and twisted them to their own advantage. This is an eon of time in modern campaigning, when every tweet is its own news cycle. And as if to highlight their slow-off-the-mark response, the Mittsters formed a delegation and flew to Washington to personally demand a retraction by the paper, which they accused of conflating outsourcing with offshoring. Having brushed off the paper in advance, they arrived with a dossier and demanded results. Not surprisingly, they failed.
The Romney campaign's next move was to strenuously point out that Obama's stimulus package directly poured money into foreign, as opposed to American, jobs, by funneling grants to overseas energy companies. This would have been a good retort -- had the campaign thought of using it right away, not after Team Obama had gone up with an attack ad.
Around that time, the Romney camp committed its biggest mistake, basing their defense of the candidate on the theory that he had bowed out of any role in Bain as of early 1999, and, as such, could not be blamed for any offshoring, consulting or other work that Bain did thereafter. This was too cute by half.
For one, were they saying that there was a lot of offshoring, but that Mitt wasn't around for it? Or were they saying that there wasn't any offshoring, at least none that Bain was responsible for?
For another, the timeline defense is opening an entire new line of media inquiry about the facts -- and opening a new line of inquiry is the last thing you want to do. And the question was -- and is -- whether Mitt Romney was really and truly dialed out of Bain, and too busy in Salt Lake City with preparing for the Olympics to notice that American jobs were being shipped overseas?
It didn't take reporters long to start digging through documents. Fortune magazine found some documents supporting Romney's narrative. But others found that, in SEC filings, Romney's name was listed as the leader of record of Bain through 2002.
The Huffington Post reported on Thursday that, as he prepared to run for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Romney suddenly had an interest in showing that he WAS involved in Bain business from 1999 to 2002. In a lawsuit filed by Democrats seeking to question his residency, Romney said that he had worked closely on trips back to Boston with at least one Bain-owned company, LifeLike Corp., and had gone to board meetings for Staples and Marriott.
The impression you get is of a guy who was whatever the form in front of him required him to be -- not great advertising for a presidential candidate.
But the larger question: Why did Mitt and his minions behave this way, that is, putting a blowtorch to a campfire?
The first reason is Bain, and the culture that surrounds it. Bain Capital, which Mitt Romney founded, was not and is not now in the business of telling people what it is up to. The press is a pox, at best, in a business that requires stealth attacks on undervalued assets.
The second is the attitude of the Romney campaign, which is staffed by classy, good people who also have no use for the press. With the exception of Fox and perhaps a few other publications and outlets, they think that the press corps is against them. But this is and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obama's attitude is not really much better, but he makes a show of respect. As far as the Romney camp is concerned, most of the press are aliens from a distant evil planet.
Finally, most important, there is Mitt Romney himself. He has no interest in speaking to the non-Fox media. He is bad at it and hasn't practiced enough to get better. His top adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, is a former tabloid reporter who used to rip politicians to shreds, but now uses his considerable talents to keep other reporters at bay, or in fear, if he can get away with it.
In 2008, Romney talked a lot about his Mormon faith and felt burned by the experience. He reluctantly released one tax return and is loath to release more. For 2012, his basic strategy is to clam up, and try through that aggressive silence to keep the focus on Obama.
But if you don't answer questions when they are asked, the result isn't silence. It is more questions.
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