When Bill Clinton accepted the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination in New York, he was portrayed in a video as the “Man from Hope,” a governor from a small Arkansas town who promised better economic times and more jobs. Then-Texas governor George W. Bush claimed the 2000 Republican presidential nomination in Philadelphia as the man who would beef up national security and restore “dignity and respect” to the presidency.
Next week, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will be presented to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., as “The Man from Bain Capital,” or so it would seem from recent media reports.
Romney’s advisers are orchestrating a four-day convention that is not so much designed to make Americans like him any more than they do – which is not very much, according to polls – but to enthusiastically embrace the idea of him “as the nation’s leader and a uniquely qualified businessman who can fix the economy,” according to The Washington Post.
Instead of glossing over Romney’s career as a private equity executive who made his fortune by buying, overhauling and selling companies, The New York Times says the Broadway-style convention production will highlight the experience that prepared him to become the country’s next economic steward.
Russ Schriefer, a senior Romney adviser, told The Post that while it’s important to convey a sympathetic portrait of Romney, “We’re going to talk about what the American people really care about, which is how Governor Romney [can] make their lives better.”
FROM RETICENT TO RISKY
For a political team notoriously cautious, Romney and his advisers have seemed more than willing to roll the dice recently to try to shake up the campaign and move ahead of President Obama in an extremely tight race. The choice of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as the vice presidential nominee immediately shifted the ideological contours of the campaign and put Medicare reform and fiscal constraint back on the front burner. So does a convention-week strategy of directly embracing the Bain mantle.
Overhauling the Medicare program for future seniors has never been a political winner for the Republicans, even with the caveats being offered by Ryan and Romney. And the controversy over Bain has haunted Romney politically for nearly two decades, dating back to his unsuccessful challenge of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1994.
“We got to see a riskier side of Romney that challenged his image,” veteran Republican pollster John Zogby told The Fiscal Times. “He changed the focus of the debate away from jobs and toward fiscal sustainability. There is now a stark choice, two completely different governing models.”
Ron Bonjean, a Republican Washington political consultant, said, “The Ryan choice is like a strong three-month energy drink until Election Day. He brought renewed enthusiasm to a race that was bogged down by gotcha attacks.”
This energetic new partnership will be on full display next week, when the two leaders and their large, telegenic families come together in Florida for four days of orchestrated speeches and festivities, with a $2.5 million stage and high-resolution screens as the backdrop.
Many of the speeches at the convention – including the keynote address by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s introduction of Romney – are being drafted to describe how Romney intends to create jobs, slash taxes, eliminate government red tape, boost energy production and sharply reduce the debt. Some of the speeches are almost certain to say that Romney and others at Bain Capital pioneered modern-day business practices – a sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest strategy that eliminated weak performers while promoting cutting-edge and highly successful companies including AMC Entertainment, Staples and Domino’s Pizza.
Obama and the Democrats have accused Romney of engaging in a form of vulture capitalism at Bain Capital during the late 1980s and 1990s, which made millions for him and his investors while driving many businesses into the ground. A TV ad aired recently by a group supporting Obama suggested there was a link between the death of a laid-off steelworker’s wife and Romney’s former company. Obama tried to distance himself from the ad last week, but he said he intends to keep raising sharp contrasts between himself and the GOP challenger.
Even so, July 19-22 polling by Gallup suggests that the Republicans may be wise to highlight Romney’s business experience, including his years at Bain. That poll found that 63 percent of Americans believe that Romney’s business background would help him to make good decisions as president in dealing with economic problems, while only 29 percent viewed his business experience as a negative.
Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said that rather than worrying about putting a good face on his business background, Romney should release more than the two years of income tax returns he has pledged to make available, to defuse Democratic charges that he has something to hide. Romney said last Thursday that he paid at least 13 percent of his income in taxes each year during the past decade. However, he has steadfastly refused to release more than his 2010 tax return and his 2011 return, which the campaign plans to release before Oct. 15.
“He needs to take the income tax issue head on, which he hasn’t done, and I think that’s more important,” Baker told The Fiscal Times. “All the boasting about job creation he’s going to be given a script for is not going to shut down that issue. And it raises the question, ‘What does he have to hide?’ That is a real weak spot in that campaign.”
If the GOP does its job at the convention and for the balance of the campaign, it will place the economy and jobs – not Romney’s taxes – at the top of voters’ agendas. But that’s a tall order for Romney, who has a long way to go to close the gap in key battleground states. Will ‘The Man from Bain’ change the game?
Josh Boak of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.