For a few weeks in 1994, Mitt Romney appeared poised to do the unthinkable. In his first run for public office, Romney threatened to deny Ted Kennedy a sixth full Senate term. A statewide poll showed Romney leading Kennedy by eight points. Republican incumbents were heavily favored to hold on to the Massachusetts governorship, lieutenant governorship, the state treasurer's office, and a pair of congressional seats.
Kennedy fought back like a cornered animal. His campaign aired no fewer than six ads attacking Romney's business record at Bain Capital, with special emphasis on the paper company Ampad and a factory in Marion, Indiana. The ad claimed that Bain laid off 350 of the paper factory's workers and told them they could reapply for their old jobs at a 25 percent pay cut -- and that Mitt Romney was to blame.
"He has cut our wages to put money in his pocket," complained a worker featured in one of the Kennedy ads. Workers from Indiana were brought into Massachusetts to hand out anti-Romney leaflets. The campaign took its toll. Romney's lead in the polls evaporated. "I was kind of attracted to Romney," a woman told the Boston Globe less than a month before the election. "But this really make me rethink things. I'm undecided now."
Romney wound up losing that Senate election by 17 points, running 30 points behind GOP Gov. Bill Weld in what was a fairly good year for Republicans even in Massachusetts. Kennedy didn't even end up running ad charging Romney-led Bain with accepting a taxpayer bailout. He didn't have to -- he was already ahead in the polls again.
There were some factual problems with the Ampad story. Romney wasn't in charge of Bain when most of the major decisions affecting the Indiana plant were made. Ironically, he was on leave running against Kennedy. Romney offered to meet with the workers and see what he could do to help find a solution, "But I'm in no position to negotiate with the union negotiators or the company negotiators."
None of these details mattered. Such nuances can get lost when a negative ad conforms to concerns voters already have about a candidate. Willie Horton worked because many Americans already feared Michael Dukakis was a liberal drip who would be soft on crime. There has always been great attention paid to Romney's wealth and criticism of his ability to connect with working-class people. He has struggled to win over voters in lower income brackets even in Republican primaries.
It was only natural that Barack Obama's campaign team would dust off the old Kennedy attacks and, being environmentally sound liberals, see if they could be recycled. Newt Gingrich and, to a much lesser extent, Rick Santorum also incorporated some Bain material in their hits against Romney. Gingrich put together a whole movie about the "King of Bain" titled "When Mitt Romney Came to Town." The Atlantic's Elspeth Reeve concluded, "Newt Gingrich merely re-aired the 1994 argument about Romney's record, but with better production values."
Obama and his super PAC are focusing on a different company that went bankrupt under Bain management, GST Steel, though surely they have more in their arsenal. Their two-minute TV ad, augmented by a six-minute web ad, will air in five key swing states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Iowa, and Colorado. Romney is labeled an "economic vampire."
Like the Ampad story, there are some holes in this story. Romney was no longer with Bain when GST Steel was shuttered in 2001. Obama bundler Jonathan Levine, who has raised $100,000 for the president, was still with Bain at the time. There is nevertheless ample precedent for such facts getting lost in the campaign maelstrom.
Yet so far, even some Democrats have seemed uncomfortable with this line of attack. Before he was taken to the woodshed, Obama surrogate Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, told Meet the Press that this criticism was "nauseating." Booker exclaimed, "Stop attacking private equities!” Harold Ford, a former head of the Democratic Leadership Council who moved left when contemplating a campaign in New York, concurred: "Overall, I agree with the substance of [Booker's] comments on Meet the Press."
Ed Rendell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called Obama's Bain ads "very disappointing." Rendell continued: “I think Bain is fair game, because Romney has made it fair game. But I think how you examine it, the tone, what you say, is important as well.” Even Steve Rattner, the former Obama car czar who has assailed Romney's claim to have a record creating jobs, has called the hits on Bain "unfair."
Of course, Rattner has two good reasons to be sensitive on this score. First, as car czar he has presided over some layoffs himself, which the Romney camp has been quick to point out in their counterattacks. Secondly, Rattner is a -- somewhat controverisal -- former private equity executive himself.
Maybe Obama will yet emulate Kennedy's success in tying Bain's record around Romney's neck. But there seems to be a greater realization today in 1994 that private equity is complicated, with innovative wins and sometimes heartbreaking losses, that can't be so easily or accurately lemon-picked. And Ted Kennedy didn't have to run for reelection on Obama's jobs record.