Somehow, the summer of national economic discontent morphed into the summer of when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital and how many years’ worth of tax returns he’s released to the public.
Along the way, Romney has lost control of his campaign message, and lost perhaps his best opportunity to define himself to undecided voters.
President Obama’s campaign has delivered a sustained attack on Romney by hitting an area the Republican candidate hoped to make into a strength — and they just might have done lasting damage.
To recap, the summer was primed to be tough sledding for Team Obama. Three straight anemic monthly jobs reports slammed the campaign at the very time that a Republican nominee who wants to be known as a job creator was getting his footing for the general election.
But the president and his allies inside and outside his campaign had already begun launching their biggest missiles. Taking inspiration from previous campaigns against Romney — and drawing lessons from John Kerry’s summer 2004 battering at the hands of President Bush and those doing dirty work for him — they have sought to portray Romney as a job destroyer who’s trying to hide shady finances from the American people.
That’s made the arcane question of whether Romney left Bain Capital fully in 1999 or 2002 suddenly relevant to the presidential campaign. It’s combined with Romney’s refusal to release more than two years’ worth of his own taxes to leave Romney defending his own biography, rather than forcing Obama to defend three-and-a-half years of his presidency.
Finally and belatedly, Romney lashed back late last week, with an ad slamming the president for misconstruing his business record, and with a demand for an apology from the president in a round of television interviews.
“He sure as heck ought to say that he’s sorry for the kinds of attacks that are coming from his team,” Romney told ABC’s Jonathan Karl Friday.
But Obama isn’t being shamed out of his attacks: “No, we won’t be apologizing,” the president said in an interview aired today.
“Mr. Romney claims he’s Mr. Fix-It for the economy because of his business experience, so I think voters entirely legitimately want to know what is exactly his business experience,” he continued.
Other Democrats are more succinct: “Stop whining,” Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, advised Romney today on ABC’s “This Week.”
Republicans aren’t quite offering the same advice. But prominent voices inside the party are voicing concern that Romney is spending too much time on the defensive of late.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said Romney needs to play more offense by taking stronger stands and defining his candidacy around fiscal discipline.
“If I’m Governor Romney,” Walker said, “I keep coming back to saying, ‘Mr. President, defend your record and lay out what you’re going to do for the future’ and keep coming back to what I think most people want to hear which is, ‘What are you going to do?’ “
Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama even joined those who are calling on Romney to release more tax returns.
“I just believe in total transparency,” Bentley said at a gathering of governors this weekend in Virginia.
Romney aides have long maintained that chasing headlines around anything other than the state of the economy is a mistake for their campaign. They always figured they’d be outspent in the post-primary, pre-convention period, since Obama did not have to spend down his war chest fending off opponents.
The race remains basically tied despite the onslaught. Clearly, though, the Bain attacks are working, particularly in the handful of battleground states that will decide the election.
Yet there’s an element of Obama’s own argument that makes Romney loyalists take heart.
“I think most Americans figure if you’re the chairman, CEO and president of a company that you are responsible for what that company does,” Obama told WJLA-TV Friday.
The hope at Romney headquarters is that man who’s been the country’s chief executive for nearly an entire presidential term now will be held similarly responsible for the economy. Romney, though, will need to maintain enough credibility to make that case when voters start to tune in in earnest.