The Huffington Post ran an article today titled "Gov. Martin O'Malley Urges Dems To Focus More On Romney's Governing Record, Less On Bain." In it, the governor of Maryland makes the following case:
"I think a point that needs to be emphasized was that in easier times when he [Romney] was governor of a pretty innovative state, Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 [in job creation]," he said. "You contrast that to the tougher times we have now, under Governor Deval Patrick's leadership, Massachusetts is 5th in the nation."
O'Malley makes a good point. President Obama's re-election team should heed it.
Democrats have been amused at the attacks on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital, mostly because they've all come from his fellow Republicans. I guess Ronald Reagan's "Eleventh Commandment" (which is usually stated "speak no ill of a fellow Republican") is officially dead and buried, eh? But while Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul (and others) have been launching these broadsides against the good ship Mitt, they miss a much larger point: the real issue to put before the voters is what Mitt Romney did after he left the private sector for politics.
This is where the attacks on Romney actually began, back in Iowa. Two Republican candidates were out front in attempting to contrast their records with Romney's -- Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry. Both made the claim (in one form or another) that they would be a much better choice for the voters because of their job-creation track record when they were governors of (respectively) Utah and Texas. "We were number one in job creation, while Massachusetts under Mitt Romney was 47th out of 50" was the meat of their argument.
These points have all been eclipsed by two factors. The first is how poorly Perry and Huntsman have done on the campaign trail, and the second is the relentless attacks on what Perry now occasionally calls "vulture capitalism" -- what Romney actually did at Bain, in other words.
While this might make sense in the Republican primary fight (who knows what makes sense in this intra-party battle, at this point), Democrats should turn to Romney's actual record as Massachusetts governor.
There are two major reasons for doing so. In the first place, this is the core argument Romney is making for his candidacy -- that he somehow "understands the economy" better than everyone else (and certainly better than Barack Obama) because he is an experienced businessman, which is supposed to translate into being a successful politician when it comes to steering the American economy as a whole. That's Mitt's whole campaign rationale in a nutshell. But, unlike some candidates' reasons for running, Mitt actually has a record in this regard. He left the private sector to become the executive of a large state. If Democrats can show that he wasn't a sparkling success at actually running that state, it knocks down the foundation Mitt is attempting to run on. Without the rationale of "a businessman understands how to get the economy going," Mitt has very little left to explain why he'd be a better president than Obama. Massachusetts, as far as I know, had no foreign policy crises during Mitt's leadership, for instance.
The second big reason Mitt's governorship could be a fatal weak spot for him is that Republican voters already are wary of Mitt on this regard. Many Republicans are leery of Mitt precisely because of what he did while governor. Mention "Romneycare" to your average rank-and-file Republican, if you don't believe me. Plus, there's a whole gold mine of quotes from Romney when he was running against Ted Kennedy for Senate which have barely been mentioned in the media so far. Republicans -- especially the Tea Party wing -- are going to be seriously conflicted about voting for Mitt come next November. They really want to beat Obama, but they also really don't trust Mitt much at all on any of their core issues. Mitt just exudes "I'll say anything to get elected," which doesn't exactly build voter confidence in the GOP base. A lot of Republicans will be voting next year while holding their noses, and anything Democrats can do to convince a few of them to stay home and not vote at all is a smart political tactic, at this point (Obama voters are going to have their own "enthusiasm gap" on their side of the aisle, so it would level the field a bit to have an equal excitement gap on the other side).
Mitt Romney, should he win his party's nomination, will be vulnerable in one very big respect -- he was a financial wizard, in a climate that is not exactly friendly to the argument: "I made lots of money on Wall Street, let me run the country!" The populist anger out there isn't going to see Mitt's experience as necessarily what the country is looking for, at the moment. Plus, there's one further parallel to be made in this regard -- we had eight years of what was then called an "M.B.A. Presidency," when a candidate made a similar argument that "what was needed was a businessman in the White House." And how did George W. Bush work out for everyone?
Romney, of course, isn't George W. Bush. Obama can't make his entire campaign about looking backwards, either. But even without the Bush reference, they should listen closely to what Governor O'Malley is saying. If Mitt thinks being a businessman is the key to being a good politician, then let's examine his record in this regard a lot more closely. Toss off a reference to Bain every now and again, and let the Republicans bicker over that kettle of fish. But focus much more closely on what Mitt actually did as governor, because that is likely going to be a much more convincing argument to make to the voters.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant