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Why Bain Matters, And Why It Doesn’t

Since everyone from Ross Douthat to David Frum to Cory Booker (and Scott Galupo) to Andrew Sullivan’s anonymous emailers has weighed in on Bain Capital, I suppose it’s too late for me to throw my two cents in. But I basically threw them in last month when I said:

I wonder whether a better way to turn the Bain history to Romney’s advantage isn’t to say: yeah, I restructured companies to make them more efficient, and yeah, that often involved layoffs. Sometimes it involved killing off the business altogether. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do with the government. I’m not ideologically averse to government. I don’t want government to wither on the vine. I just want Americans to get their hard-earned money’s worth.

If the general election is “I want the rich to pay their fair share” versus “I want people to keep more of their money,” the President has the winning argument. If the general election is “I want the rich to pay their fair share” versus “I want taxpayers to get their money’s worth,” I think the challenger has the upper hand.

Frum is right: Obama has been extremely friendly to Wall Street (though one should assume Romney would be at least equally friendly, and one could hope – audaciously – that after being stiffed for reelection cash by those who funded him the first time, a second-term Obama might be tougher). And neither Obama nor Romney has a secret plan to reverse decades of deindustrialization. If the Bain attacks read as, “Romney is rich” or “Romney laid people off” I don’t think they’ll work – and I think they could be turned to Romney’s advantage, per the above.

And I don’t think Douthat’s answer – that Obama will promise larger government benefits than Romney would deliver (basically, the thrust of the much-mocked “Julia” campaign) – is adequate. Those benefits are paid by somebody. The somebody is us, ultimately. “I won’t cut your Medicare” can be part of the message, but it can’t be the whole message – it can’t even be the primary thrust of the message. Obama isn’t running for Congress; he’s running to be re-elected to the Presidency.

The value of the Bain attacks to the Obama campaign is if they can make the case, basically, that Andrew Sullivan’s emailer made: that a lot of what Bain did wasn’t making anything more efficient. That undercuts Romney’s “private sector expertise” argument, but it does something more.

The point, pace Frum, isn’t to say that deindustrialization was caused by LBO firms, and that therefore we need policies to rein them in. Maybe they were part of the problem, and maybe we do, but nobody in their right mind would identify them as primary culprits, and some (Cory Booker apparently being one of them) would defend at least some firms on the merits. The point is: if Romney’s “private sector experience” can be described as basically destroying healthy businesses to skim money for rich investors, then what does it mean to say he’ll bring that experience to bear in dealing with the economy, and with government?

The obvious answer – intended by the Obama campaign – is that Romney will cut everybody’s benefits not to get the economy moving again, but to reduce taxes on the wealthy. That would be precisely analogous to what they are alleging he did at Bain: cut jobs not to save businesses, but to squeeze them for cash and then throw them away.

After the extension of the Bush tax cuts in their entirety, and an Obama payroll tax cut, and in the context of mounting debt, Romney is going to run on further tax cuts, particularly cuts in taxes on capital, as a spur to growth. The Bain ads are attempts to attack the notion that Romney knows anything about creating jobs, yes, but they are more importantly attempts to attack this central tenet of Republican religion. And Romney presents about as good a target as you could want for this sort of attack.

UPDATE: And I still want to know who bought Ampad debt.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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