Why the latest Bain story is a loser on all sides

When the news first “broke” this week in Boston, raising the question of when Mitt Romney actually left Bain Capital, I immediately had something of a sinking feeling which I shared with friends. It seemed to me that this was going to be an ugly distraction which was going to leave a lot of people on both sides with egg on their faces, and all over nothing of much consequence. Now, a couple of days later, it shows no signs of abating as Obama doubles down on his claims even as Mitt offers a “spirited rebuttal” against the charges.

The oddest part of all this is that even the media – for once – seems to be defending Romney’s side of the story. And yet it doesn’t go away. The reason for this, as I surmised on the first day, is that the competing camps seeking to either pump up or deflate the story are each faced with one uncomfortable statement they must defend.

Those siding with the President must lay claim to the following:

  • A person who is working full time on another project, is on a leave of absence, and has turned over all day to day management of operations to a group of former associates is the personal architect of whatever strategies are put in place by that firm.

It’s the most common defense we’ve seen and there’s some logic in there which is pretty hard to argue with when you put it that way. But before you get too happy about it, I also noted that Mitt’s defenders were going to have to go out in the public square and defend this doozy:

  • The President, CEO and sole shareholder of record at a large corporation bears no responsibility for the actions of that company.

You’ll notice that there’s a key difference in wording between these two memes which you’ll now see all over the web on a daily basis.Republicans want to talk about the day to day reality of the events at Bain. Romney was gone and mostly likely had very little idea what was going on. He was very busy elsewhere, and as long as the firm appeared to continue to run well and make money, why would he care?

But Democrats want to focus on the word responsibility. If your name is on the record as being in charge, then the ultimate responsibility falls on your shoulders. If you’re the captain of the ship and it hits an iceberg, it’s your fault even if you are asleep in your cabin at the time. And like it or not, that’s a fairly easy message to sell in sixty second sound bites.

So, could Mitt have handled this any better? Or has he pretty much said all there is to say? Doug Mataconis seems to think he could be doing better.

The story that Romney told in last night’s television interviews was not essentially different from what the campaign has been saying for most of this week ever since these questions started being asked — that Mitt Romney ceased all involvement in the day-to-day affairs of Bain and its related entity in February 1999 when he left Boston to go run the Salt Lake City Olympics, a job he continued at for the next three years. As far as how and why his name continued to end up on SEC documents for these entities, Romney’s explanation seems to boil down to the fact that, even while he was in Utah, he remained the owner of, or a partner in, the various Bain entities. After Romney was finished with the Olympics, Romney and his partners wound down there relationship and went their separate ways.

That may all be true, and from everything I’ve been reading on the topic the suggestion that some on the left have made that there was something illegal going on here is largely baseless. The problem is that it is rather apparent that the Romney campaign isn’t doing a very good job of explaining all of this to the public. To the average person, and indeed to me, it doesn’t make sense that one would give up active control of a business and yet remain as the responsible party in SEC filings for the next three years, nor does it make sense that someone who isn’t actively working for a company anymore would receive a $100,000 per year salary nonetheless. There may very well be explanations for all of this, even if they are a bit difficult to explain easily, but so far the Romney campaign hasn’t done a good job at all of that, and neither did Romney in his interviews last night. As a result they’re keeping this story in the news cycle far longer than it ought to be, to Romney’s ultimate detriment.

I see what you’re saying, Doug, but let’s face it… that doesn’t make a very good bumper sticker.

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