Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
After the first presidential debate in Denver—which an on-the-attack Mitt Romney seemed to exploit better than a noncombative President Barack Obama—at least one question loomed: Why had the president not once referred to the 47 percent video that showed Romney denigrating half of Americans as moochers and victims who don't assume responsibility for their lives? After all, this video seemed to have sent the Romney campaign reeling, and focus groups conducted by both campaigns have found it had a serious impact on voter perceptions of Romney.
The morning after the debate, I contacted several Democratic strategists. They each said they were puzzled by Obama's silence on this topic and by his decision not to say a word about Romney's days at Bain Capital. "This is the stuff that has been working for us," one remarked. "Bain, 47 percent, Romney not empathizing with the middle class. Why not mention it?"
The Obama campaign does have an explanation. When I asked a top campaign official why Obama had made no mention of Romney's 47 percent remark, he said,
Not that we won't talk about it again. We will. But [what's] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We've got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it's sunk in. Ultimately the president's goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.
It's clear, one Democratic strategist said, that Obama's inner circle concluded it was best not to turn the debate into a slugfest and hit Romney personally. That might come across as not presidential. It could distract from his aim of persuading those few remaining undecideds that they should see this election as a choice between two starkly different visions for the future and select his. Besides, there are weeks of ads to come, and if the 47 percent theme continues to resonate, the campaign certainly can keep producing ads that use the video as ammo.
Despite the pundit reviews noting that Romney performed better than Obama, is it possible that Obama's low-impact strategy worked—or didn't fail? Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super-PAC, has released a memo based on a "dial group session" pollster Geoff Garin held in Aurora, Colorado, during the debate; the participants were "weak Democrats and independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but who remain open to switching in the upcoming election." The results were mixed:
Compared with the beginning of the session, there was a doubling in the number of respondents who said that Obama has good ideas for improving the economy. While Romney also improved on this dimension, 63% of respondents said at the end that Obama expressed good ideas for improving the economy, compared with 27% who said the same about Romney in the debate…
Romney did gain ground on the President on the issue of taxes, and he largely negated the advantage Obama had on the issue when respondents first walked into the room.
In the moment-to-moment dialing, President Obama’s high points were when he talked about outsourcing and tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas, the need for a balanced approach to dealing with the deficit, and clean energy. Romney’s high points were fewer, but he scored best whenever he spoke about making jobs the number-one priority.
Respondents who came into the room open to Romney as an alternative to Obama felt disappointed in Romney’s lack of specifics. But Romney did benefit from low expectations among this group, and several said that Romney did not seem as bad as they thought he might be. For these key swing voters, whom Obama must hold and Romney must win, the first debate did not change much, but it also did not settle much. Obama continues to have the advantage with them, but the deal still is not sealed.
Not settle much. That's often the case with presidential debates. But perhaps the most worrisome of these findings for the Obama camp is that these voters ended up believing Romney's not such a bad guy. That suggests his debate performance has the potential to undo some of the damage he suffered from the Bain blasts and the revelation of his 47 percent tirade. Yet, as the Obama campaign official suggests, there's plenty of time—and plenty of opportunity—for the campaign to resume its Bain-bashing and reprise its 47 percent assault.
UPDATE: On a conference call with reporters, a defensive David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, noted that the president's supporters would have liked to see Obama slam Romney on Bain, tax returns, and the 47 percent video. But, he added, "a lot of these issues are well known to the public," and Obama's "choice was to talk about the main things people are worried about in their lives." Obama, Axelrod said, had wanted to avoid an insult-fest and instead use the debate to discuss the future. He did note that following the debate the campaign would "make some adjustments."
This is how it was supposed to be for Mitt Romney.
The first presidential debate, on Wednesday night in Denver, demonstrated that it is difficult to defend progress regarding a sluggish economy and far easier to decry the status quo and promise to do better than the guy in charge. Romney repeatedly described President Obama's actions as failures because the economy remains troubled and claimed he would be the white knight that rides to the rescue. He displayed conviction and passion as he did so, tossing out purported facts and repeatedly referring to Americans he or Ann have met who have shared tales of hardship.
The latest Mitt Romney video released by Mother Jones Washington Bureau Chief David Corn doesn't address the "47 percent," but it does reveal some uncomfortable truths about how the GOP candidate viewed his role at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded.
Speaking in 1985 at the 20th anniversary of Bain & Company, a young Romney said: "Bain Capital is an investment partnership which was formed to invest in startup companies and ongoing companies, then to take an active hand in managing them and hopefully, five to eight years later, to harvest them at a significant profit."
In two minutes, Corn breaks down exactly why Romney's top priority at Bain wasn't creating jobs or building strong companies. He also raises the question: What makes Romney qualified to do so now as a potential president?
Have an issue or a MoJo reporter you would like us to spend two minutes with? Drop us an email at email@example.com.
Campaigning for the presidency, Mitt Romney has pointed to his stint as the founder and manager of Bain Capital, a private equity firm, as proof he can rev up the US economy and create jobs at a faster clip than President Barack Obama. Last year, while stumping in Florida, Romney declared, "You'd have a president who has spent his life in business—small business, big business—and who knows something about how jobs are created and how we compete around the world." His campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, has said that Romney's Bain days afford him more expertise than Obama to "focus on job creation and turn around our nation's faltering economy." Romney has even claimed that during his tenure at Bain, "we were able to help create over 100,000 jobs." In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Romney smacked Obama for having "almost no experience working in a business" and tied that to the sluggish recovery.
But at Bain, Romney's top priority wasn't to boost employment. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, creating jobs "wasn't the aim of Bain or other private-equity firms, which measure success by returns produced for investors." And, the newspaper reported, Romney's 100,000-jobs claim is tough to evaluate.
Mother Jones has obtained a video from 1985 in which Romney, describing Bain's formation, showed how he viewed the firm's mission. He explained that its goal was to identify potential and hidden value in companies, buy significant stakes in these businesses, and then "harvest them at a significant profit" within five to eight years.
The video was included in a CD-ROM created in 1998 to mark the 25th anniversary of Bain & Company, the consulting firm that gave birth to Bain Capital. Here is the full clip, as it appeared on that CD-ROM (the editing occurred within the original):
TRANSCRIPT: Bain Capital is an investment partnership which was formed to invest in startup companies and ongoing companies, then to take an active hand in managing them and hopefully, five to eight years later, to harvest them at a significant profit…The fund was formed on September 30th of last year. It's been about 10 months then. It was formed with $37 million in invested cash. An additional $50 million or so of what I'll call a call pool, which is money that we can call upon if the deals are large enough that they require more than a $2 or $3 million dollar initial investment. Why in the world did Bain and Company get involved in this kind of a business? We're not particularly noted for having years and years of experience in financing. Three reasons. We recognized that we had the potential to develop a significant and proprietary flow of business opportunities. Secondly, we had concepts and experience which would allow us to identify potential value and hidden value in a particular investment candidate. And third, we had the consulting resources and management skills and management resources to become actively involved in the companies we invested in to help them realize their potential value.
The CD-ROM was a hip-hip-hooray for Bain & Company—in one video, an employee noted that the operating principle of the firm is "never lose sight of the fact that there is at least a 1 percent chance that you may not know the answer or the answer you have may be wrong"—and it was produced for distribution to the firm's employees and clients. The video did not note where Romney made these remarks about the origins of Bain Capital. But this short clip offers a glimpse of Romney when he was at the start of his private equity career and saw businesses as targets of opportunity that could be harvested for the benefit of his investors, not as long-term job creators or participants in a larger community. His remarks were hardly surprising, but they did encapsulate the mindset of get-in/get-out private equity deal makers.
The CD-ROM, which was given to Mother Jones by a former Bain & Company employee, also provides a look at the corporate culture of the consulting firm. Here's how Bainiacs poked fun at themselves, sketch-comedy-style:
And here's how the Bain & Company gang partied at annual meetings, where employees came together to form what was known as the "Bain Band" (note the easy transformation from "Jesus Is Just Alright" to "Working at Bain's Alright"):
The CD-ROM contained no footage of Romney singing or cutting up when he was a prominent player at the consulting shop, which was before Bill Bain, its founder, pushed Romney to leave Bain & Company to create and lead Bain Capital. There is only that one video of Romney discussing his private equity firm in its first months. In this clip, Romney mentioned that it would routinely take up to eight years to turn around a firm—though he now slams the president for failing to revive the entire US economy in half that time.
In the week since I made public the secret video of Mitt Romney at a private Boca Raton fundraiser denigrating almost half of America as moochers and victims, I've been repeatedly asked what I consider the most damaging—or damning—portion of Romney's remarks. I've noted that the great thing about this story is that people can watch the video for themselves—7 million people went to this site or YouTube in the first days of the video's release and did that—and reach their own conclusions.
Yet one sentence did stand out to me. When Romney was in mid-rant about the 47 percent—simplistically and erroneously conflating three subsets of Americans: those who voted for Barack Obama, those who receive some form of government assistance, and those who pay no federal income taxes—he said:
I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Here was Romney sharing his view that Americans who don't make enough money to pay income taxes and his fellow citizens who rely on Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, or other government programs are lesser people than he and the millionaires before him. These people, Romney was saying, are not adults; they do not, and will not, fend for themselves or do what they must to feed, clothe, shelter, educate, and care for themselves and their family members. It was an arrogant insult spoken with true detachment. This was 100-percent 1-percent.
My view of this one line was reinforced this morning. I walked into a store to buy some cleaning products. The 40-something woman at the counter rang up the purchases and kept looking at me. Once I had paid, she said in a low voice, "I really don't want to bother you, but..."
Go ahead, I said.
But I know who you are, and I just want to say that Mitt Romney doesn't know what he's talking about. Not at all. I am college-educated, but look where I'm working now. I can't find a better job now. And, and….
She paused and lowered her voice more:
I'm on food stamps. I didn't have a choice. I'm making about $12,000 a year now. And I need them. I work hard. And I'm looking for other work. But just because I'm on food stamps doesn't mean I'm not taking care of myself. Doesn't he know that? Doesn't he get it?
Apparently not. Many people on food stamps, Medicaid, and the like do strive to provide for themselves and their families. The working poor…work. They may even park cars at fancy fundraisers for minimum wage. Romney all-too glibly characterized anyone receiving any public assistance as a parasitic freeloader, and he revealed an us-versus-them attitude that was tremendously ungracious, mean-spirited, and predicated on ignorance of the real world.
"Thank you, thank you," the woman said. "You showed us what he really thinks of us, what he thinks of me."