Editor’s note: Gloria Borger is CNN’s chief political analyst, appearing regularly on shows such as “AC360°”, “The Situation Room,” “John King, USA” and “State of the Union.”
(CNN) — As the presidential campaign veers off onto the Bain Capital ramp, the predictable arguments ensue: Is the turn simply a political attack meant to distract from bad economic news? (So says Mitt Romney). Or is it an important, valid argument at the heart of the contest? (So says President Barack Obama.)
Distill all the arguments down to an essential core, and they’re really about one thing: experience. As in, does past experience matter? Is it an indicator of future behavior? Or of your values? And if you behaved one way at another job in your past, what does that tell us about how you would behave as president? Finally, should your previous experience (or lack of it) in any way disqualify you from the presidency?
The arguments over experience are hardly new. In fact, back in the day when then-candidate Obama was a tad short on the experience side, Hillary Clinton made the case that she was the best-equipped to handle foreign policy disasters as president (See: ad with red phone ringing at 3 am.) Obama’s response: “I have shown the judgment to lead.”
Which seemed a fair enough retort. So let’s apply that standard to the Bain Capital fight: Romney’s job was to make money for investors. Bain Capital claims that revenues grew in 80% of the more than 350 companies in which it has invested. It also makes the case that the Obama campaign’s cause-and-effect simplification of the eventual failure of a paper company — such as Ampad — was completely overblown and unfair: Bain bought the company in 1992, and it grew. Its control ended in 1996, four years before it folded, although Bain did retain some stake in the company. And it folded, Bain says, because the marketplace changed.
It’s more Dunder Mifflin than Darth Vader.
And, um, where was the Romney judgment call in this episode?
Ex-Bain director talks income gap
Carville: Obama’s Bain ad is legitimate
Gergen surprised Obama attacking Bain
Obama attacks Romney’s business record
To be clear: This is a political campaign. Romney’s experience at Bain is certainly relevant. After all, Romney often brags about creating 100,000 jobs, so digging into what happened there under his watch is only natural. The problem with campaigns is that issues and events and results need to be either black or white — especially in 60-second spots that liken companies such as Bain to vultures.
None other than the president himself conceded that there’s some complexity here, as The Washington Post points out in an editorial, which says the president is trying to argue all sides. “I think there are a whole lot of folks who do good work in that area and there are times where they identify the capacity for the economy to create new jobs or new industries,” the president said at the NATO summit.
Indeed, this is a president who has friends in private equity, who raises money from private equity and is making a pitch to the same folks this time around. (Full disclosure: A member of my family works in private equity.) The issue, the president told us, is that the goal of “maximizing profits” is way different from what a president does, which is making sure that “everybody in the country has a fair shot.”
And Romney, he would argue, has no experience at doing that.
Understand this: It’s not really just about business. It’s about values. The president may be broader in his approach, but his ads argue a more simple point: that Romney doesn’t have the right values to be president; that he does bad things to good people.
It might be more lucrative for Obama’s re-election prospects to go after Romney’s actual record — as a less-than-outstanding job creator as Massachusetts governor. Or as a politician with “evolving” views on issues ranging from abortion to immigration. Or to remind independent voters that during the primaries Romney called himself “severely conservative,” whatever that means. Some of this is surely in the works.
And what about the Obama campaign starting to talk about its own record? Team Obama may want to turn this into a choice election, but when incumbents run for re-election they have to explain why they should be rehired. “The Obama people believe they can win this election by criticizing Romney,” says Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration domestic policy adviser. “But they’re going to lose this election if American people don’t think they have done a good job.”
One more thing: Obama’s consistent strength is that more than half of Americans really like him. They see him as in touch with their lives and their aspirations. And his poll numbers only increased last year, for instance, when he shared America’s disgust during the distasteful debate over extending the payroll tax cuts. House Republicans seemed in desperate need of day care; Obama was the adult in the room.
That’s what people want. When a president who wants to be transformational runs a campaign that wants to deliver transparent caricatures, there’s a downside. The candidate starts looking like all the other pols.
And nobody likes them.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.