5 Reasons Why Obama's Attack on Bain Is Good For America


Ever since the Obama campaign launched a full-frontal assault on GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for his record as a leveraged-buyout kingpin at Bain Capital, all manner of consternation and hand-wringing have ensued -- some of it from Democrats.

At issue are campaign ads and videos that focus on the people whose jobs were lost when Bain, during Romney's time as CEO, bought up the companies they worked for, and then shuttered those companies' operations. One ad looks at Bain's killing of a steel plant in Missouri; a subsequent video looks at the case of SCM, once a major office-supply manufacturer, and the brutal way in which Bain fired the workers. In both instances, Bain and its investors made substantial profits. At SCM, Bain bankrupted a company that had been turning a profit when the buyout firm grabbed it.

The Obama campaign may have gone after Romney on Bain simply because staffers want their man to win the election -- and they've found quite a chink in Romney's armor, given that the former Massachusetts governor has hung the rationale for his presidential campaign not on his prowess as an elected official, but on his success as a businessman and self-described "job creator." But the anti-Bain campaign, and its fallout, is a potent reminder of how income inequality manifests in the lives of real people, and how structural problems in the electoral system favor the Bain-style robber barons of the world.

So, even if the Obama campaign's anti-Bain offensive is nothing more than a bid to ensure a win for its candidate, in the long run, the campaign is doing America a service, for the reasons listed below.

1. It breaks the long-observed campaign rule of kowtowing to Big Business and Big Finance - Try to remember the last time a presidential candidate went after his opponent for running a business by standard business practices, such as those observed by Bain Capital under Romney's direction. After all, Romney was just doing what "private equity" (a.k.a., leveraged buyout) firms do: They buy up businesses, and then dispense with them in ways that make money for investors. This was no Ponzi scheme, no Enron, nothing irregular. And politicians are generally loath to criticize businesses for just doing what the law allows them to do. But with Romney likely to suck up most of the campaign dollars being served up by Wall Street, the Obama campaign is apparently willing to take the risk of alienating a few fat cats, it that's what it takes to win in an increasingly tight presidential race. An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Obama a mere 3 points ahead of Romney -- well within the margin of error. On the issue of who would best steer the economy, the poll finds the two candidates tied. 

With data like that, Obama's best shot at making his case is to expose the kind of values Romney's tenure at Bain Capital reveal -- values that lard the coffers of rich people, often at the expense of working Janes and Joes. (For more on this strategy, read Newsweek's Michael Tomasky; Obama strategists apparently are.)

2. It has exposed the major structural problem of American democracy, smoking out big business' allies in the Democratic Party. Exhibit 1 of this structural bent toward extreme inequality is the outburst of Newark Mayor Cory Booker on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, when His Honor dubbed as "nauseating" the Obama camp's ad about the Bain-eviscerated steel plant -- and equated the Obama ad with a superPAC proposal for a race-baiting anti-Obama ad that would dredged up the white-fear bogeyman figure of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Now, why would Booker, an African American and self-described Obama campaign "surrogate" do such a thing? Turns out, he has good reason: ThinkProgress reports that Booker's first mayoral campaign collected $565,000 from the financial sector, including donations from employees of Bain Capital: 

In all — just in his first Mayoral run — Booker’s committees received more than $565,000 from the people he was defending. At least $36,000 of that came from folks at Romney’s old firm.

Booker isn't the only Democrat to publicly complain about the Obama campaigns attack on Bain: former "car czar" Steve Rattner and former Rep. Harold Ford have both voiced their disapproval.

Obama himself is hardly immune to the pressures of campaign cash from fat cats, leading some to cry hypocrisy at his campaign's attack on Romney's tenure at Bain. Just last week, Obama attended a campaign fundraiser hosted by Hamilton James, president of the Blackstone Group, the nation's largest "private equity" firm. Nonetheless, you've got to give him points for moxie as he simultaneously kicks a former CEO of a leveraged buyout firm for doing what CEOs of leveraged buyout firms do.

3. It shines a light on the false equivalency claim that "both sides are equally evil." When Booker declared the Obama campaign's anti-Bain ad to be as "nauseating" as the race-baiting ad proposed to a Romney-allied superPAC (he also called both ads "crap"), his claim rightly raised the hackles of progressives such as The Nation's Ilyse Hogue, and yours truly. Because the uproar was so high-profile, progressives finally had an opportunity to be heard on the sort of false equivalencies we face every day in the mainstream media. But the guys at HuffPost Hill (Eliot Nelson, Ryan Grim & Arthur Delaney) may have said it best: 

We're wondering how this whole false-equivalency thing would've played out during Gandhi's campaign against the Crown: "It's just nauseating how these two sides are behaving, just shooting randomly into crowds, or refusing to eat. It's a bunch o' crap."

4. It calls into question the definition of "free enterprise" as an American value. For decades, Americans have been sold a bill of goods in the form of an ideology that deems anything good for big business as being good for the little guy. When, as you watch the Obama campaign videos, you hear the stories of displaced steel workers, or office-supplies factory workers fired from their profit-making company after Bain snapped up their employers for the sum of the parts, it becomes harder to make that case. Indeed, those videos are case studies in one particular business trend -- the leveraged buyout -- that exacerbated the income gap between rich and not-rich that we see today. It's a case progressives have been making for decades, but now elevated to the level of a presidential campaign.

5. It makes the case, perhaps inadvertently, for public financing of campaigns. The values by which Romney ran Bain are not simply his values, or Republican values: they're the values of the American financial sector, which also happens to underwrite a major portion of U.S. election campaigns. They have the dough, and their bread will be buttered.

Had the Occupy movement never happened, chances are that the Obama campaign would not have had the gumption to go after Bain in this way. It was Occupy that shifted the dialog on the economy from debt and deficit to income inequality, and the American people responded favorably to the message, if not the movement. 

Progressives would be wise not to simply turn up their noses at what are obviously the machinations of electoral politics, and instead target the campaign-funding infrastructure the Democrats intramural Bain episode reveals. 

Much has been made of Occupy's refusal to cough up a succinct list of demands. The anarchical structure of the movement notwithstanding, one demand might behoove the embrace of Occupy: public financing of political campaigns. For until the private money is removed from politics, apologists for the rapacious practices of American finance entities will still, with a straight face, seek to present themselves as do-gooding populists while their patrons laugh all the way to the bank.

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