Last Friday, Mitt Romney's campaign was delivered a proverbial fruit basket: The monthly employment report from the government was pathetic. Just 80,000 jobs were added in June, the unemployment rate was still 8.2 percent, and the dodecahedron inside the political magic 8 ball started tipping away from President Obama.
The political victory, however, was short-lived, if it was lived at all. Almost immediately, Obama's team began an offensive on Romney's background, totally unrelated to the jobs numbers or the economy, and the narrative stuck for the whole week, erasing the poor employment report from memory.
On Thursday, the smear-Romney campaign crystallized with a nicely timed report in The Boston Globe that appeared to tie Romney closer to the outsourcing of jobs done by companies backed by Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he founded.
And on Friday, Obama himself weighed in for the second time this week, saying in an interview that it's "entirely appropriate" to needle Romney over his business experience because "his basic premise is that 'I'm Mr. Fix-It on the economy because I made a lot of money.' "
Previously Romney's campaign had deflected blame over the outsourced jobs by saying Romney left the firm in 1999 to run the Olympics, whereas the outsourcing in question happened after that. The Globe, however, said that Romney stayed at Bain until 2002, not 1999 — based on SEC documents that list him as the "sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president."
"They would much rather have been on offense than on defense," Dan Judy, a Republican strategist, said of Romney's campaign. "Obama's had a good week, but it's the kind of good week that the campaign has when they're in trouble."
Almost all of the Obama campaign's message this week has been about Romney's past. It started Sunday with a maelstrom of top-level stand-ins like Dick Durbin and Robert Gibbs demanding that Romney release his tax returns. They harped on a newly revealed company in Bermuda owned by Romney and said the candidate should come clean by making his tax records public so everyone can see what the company was for.
That storyline continued Monday, and it gained steam as Obama himself demanded that Romney disclose his taxes. He said presidential candidates should be an "open book." Romney fed into the sparring, saying that there was "nothing hidden" in his returns.
The sun rose Tuesday and with it a fresh video from the Obama campaign that, to the tune of a ticking clock and a jittery clarinet, said Romney "is defying calls to release more than one year's worth of tax returns." Vice President Biden jumped on board, zinging in a speech to Hispanics, "Mitt Romney wants you to show your papers, but he won't show us his."
The topic turned briefly to outsourcing, as Republicans charged that Obama was the "outsourcer-in-chief," by using taxpayer money to boost companies overseas. Romney, responding to Obama's ads that call him an outsourcer by being in charge at Bain while Bain-backed companies sent jobs overseas, said Obama funded energy companies that make products outside the country.
In a rebuttal, the Obama campaign said the president has tried to end tax breaks for companies that do just that, and that by the way, Romney profited off of companies that cut jobs in the United States while employing people in China. And the Obama campaign hurled the "outsourcer-in-chief" label back Romney's way too.
On Wednesday, Romney tried to reclaim the narrative, but the challenge was steep: His audience was the NAACP. Black voters choose Obama over Romney 96% to 3%. The result: Romney was booed three times, as Democrats accused him of staging the spectacle to appeal to conservatives.
By the time the Globe story landed Thursday, any hope of talking about the jobs numbers had been lost. According to Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt, 108 reporters jumped onto a campaign conference call focused entirely on the report about the SEC documents. "I'm sure somebody has a question," LaBolt said as the press dealt with a glitchy prompt system to chime in over the phone.
But eventually the questions stormed in, from people like CBS's Norah O'Donnell, NBC's Andrea Mitchell and The New York Times's Michael Shear. By the evening, the Bain story was on the home page of the websites for The Times, The Washington Post (the most popular story), Reuters, The Guardian (in Britain), the right-leaning Drudge Report and Bloomberg.
"What he says is he understands the economy and the private sector," Obama told CBS News in an interview that was shown Friday morning. "That's his premise. I think it is entirely appropriate to look at that record and see whether in fact his focus was in creating jobs and if he successfully did that, and when you look at the record, there are questions there that have to be asked."
Though the Obama campaign has raised Bain as an issue to question whether Romney made false statements on forms to the SEC, the underlying issue is that Romney has said he left in 1999 to avoid attacks about Bain-backed companies that outsourced jobs after he formally departed. Being in control for a few years after would expose Romney to more ties to firms that, as the politicians say, shipped jobs overseas.
Dennis Santiago, the CEO of Institutional Risk Analytics, said that in the 1990s, outsourcing was like the Macarena. Everybody was doing it.
"We had a great run for a decade getting stuff on the cheap," Santiago said. "And in the process of doing so, what naturally happens when you have one of those great runs is, you overdo it."
One economic argument that you won't hear this political season is that outsourcing can be healthy in moderation — the thinking goes that if an American company is able to hire cheaper work outside the country, the company can perform better, which helps the U.S. economy. But arguing that isn't likely to earn any candidate points in polls.
"Given that there's an economic argument to go to the lowest cost for production," Santiago said, "is that in fact the most efficient economic design point?"