BY CARL GOLDEN
Campaigning for public office on a platform of demonizing the wealthy is not new. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 1936, for instance, denounced “economic royalists” who, he said, stood in the way of achieving income equality.
The theme emerges periodically in political campaigns, but usually as part of a larger, more issue-oriented strategy.
President Obama, though, has chosen it as the centerpiece of his re-election bid, attacking presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s record as an executive of Bain Capital, a private equity firm which enjoyed enormous financial success purchasing distressed companies and investing in them as part of a turnaround strategy. Romney, as a result, became a multi-millionaire.
Not all of Bain’s ventures turned out well, however, and bankruptcies, factory closings, and unemployment dot its record.
The Obama’s campaign has seized on those failures, accusing Bain and Romney of enriching themselves at the expense of American workers. Romney responded by pointing out that failures are a constant part of private equity firms—that’s why they’re called ventures—and that Bain’s successes in rescuing companies and retaining and creating thousands of jobs far outpaces the failures.
Presumably, the Obama campaign settled on this line of attack after testing it with focus groups and scientific polling.
Both the President and Vice President Biden have hammered away at Romney and Bain Capital to the exclusion of nearly any other issue.
In doing so, the President risks subjecting himself to criticism that he so lacks confidence in his own record that his only alternative is to distract voter attention by a relentless assault on Romney’s private business dealings.
The strategy presupposes Americans resent the wealthy and will take their anger out on the Republican candidate in November, a belief that the message of the Occupy Wall Street movement sunk in across the country. It is not at all clear that such resentment is either widespread or very deep.
In fact, polling data reveals Romney’s ability to address the nation’s economic problems is at least equal to or slightly better than Obama’s. The findings suggest that Romney’s successful private sector experience equips him to deal effectively with economic growth and job creation issues at the national level.
The President insists he is not attacking private equity, only Romney’s record as a leader in the industry. In other words, private equity is fine but the fortune amassed by Romney is not.
The President is walking a fine line with this argument, one that assumes voters will be able to easily distinguish between Romney and his business dealings.
He’s asking that voters understand the subtlety and nuance of his position, despite all evidence that subtlety and nuance have never been a part of political campaigns.
A campaign theme whose success depends on voters’ ability and willingness to parse the message is problematic.