WASHINGTON — Gleeful Democrats fanned the flames Thursday after Republicans did President Barack Obama’s dirty work for him and savaged their likely 2012 nominee Mitt Romney as a “vulture capitalist.”
An explosion of vitriol from rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry in recent days, thrust Romney’s past as a Wall Street equity kingpin into the heart of the presidential campaign.
Democrats piled on, painting the man they expect to face in November’s polls as a poster boy for the corporate excess that many Americans blame for plunging their nation into the economic mire.
“After a great recession caused in large measure by Wall Street greed and recklessness, America can’t afford to put in the Oval Office a corporate raider who thinks outsourcing jobs, stripping down companies and bankrupting them for profit represents the best of a free enterprise system,” said Democratic spokesman Brad Woodhouse.
Democrats pounced after a political action committee backing Gingrich released a movie featuring tearful vignettes of people who blame Romney’s former firm Bain Capital for culling their jobs.
“For tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began, when Mitt Romney came to town,” intoned a narrator in the devastating documentary.
Romney’s career with Bain was always going to draw Democratic attacks should he win the Republican nomination, but he can hardly have expected to be torched by his own side.
The question now is whether the mud will stick?
Will the early shredding of Romney’s record, and his claim to have created 100,000 jobs at Bain, dog him in the 10 months until election day?
Or will the early laundering of Romney’s past draw the poison from similar attacks that Obama was expected to mount later in the year?
David Johnson, CEO of political consultants Strategic Vision said it was possible the Bain story could come to be seen by the public as “old news” unless he committed a gaffe which gave it fresh legs.
Democrats may have preferred the Bain storm to break in August or September when the wider US electorate is tuned, Johnson said.
Claims that Romney is a job killer are so potentially damaging because they threaten to undercut the very rationale of his campaign.
The former Massachussetts governor argues that his history as a corporate turnaround wizard who helped establish brands like the Staples office supply store, fit him perfectly to reboot the crashed US economy and create jobs.
But for the Obama campaign, Romney’s past seems a perfect match for the president’s narrative that Wall Street’s greed-laced rampage deprived the middle class of a “fair shake” at the American Dream.
“He put his work at Bain on trial by listing it as his top credential to run for president, so it’s only natural that people start to ask question about what he did there,” said an Obama campaign source.
“(It’s) the same type of recklessness on Wall Street that nearly plunged our nation into a second Great Depression.”
Phil Singer, a strategist on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the Republican showdown was a “tempest in a tea cup” but did preview an inevitable larger debate over Romney’s corporate past in the autumn.
“The impact of Bain can go either way — the onus is now on Romney to demonstrate why his time at Bain is a unique qualification for being president,” said Singer, founder of the consulting firm Marathon Strategies.
“The onus is on the Obama campaign to demonstrate why his time at Bain is a disqualifying factor.”
So far, the Bain storm has not seemed to hurt Romney politically, given his handsome win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
In fact the pile-on may have helped cement his support among those skeptical of his campaign.
Conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh, said Gingrich and Perry “blew it” with indefensible attacks on Romney and capitalism.
“I’m all for going after Romney or any other candidate… but I don’t think you tear down the engine of freedom or any other conservative principle in the process of doing all this,” he said.
Romney on Thursday launched his own counter-attack.
“I think any time a job is lost is a tragedy, for the family, for the individual that loses a job, it’s just devastating,” Romney said, in South Carolina, arguing that firms like Bain tried to both generate a return for shareholders and create employment.
While the attacks may have dented Romney’s character, they may not be decisive.
History shows the election likely rests on Obama’s approval ratings, the unemployment rate and public perceptions of the economy come November.
But in a close election, the Obama campaign will seize on any chance it gets to brand its likely foe unfit for office — and may have struck gold with video of Romney being hammered — by his own side.