Cory Booker, the highly regarded mayor of Newark, N.J., did do Mitt Romney a favor with his remarks Sunday on Meet the Press. But it's not the favor Romney's campaign probably perceives.
Booker, known for reacting quickly and thinking later—he pulled a woman from a burning house earlier this year even as his aides warned the house was about to collapse in flames, which it did moments after he and the woman escaped – took issue with President Obama's attacks on Romney as a vicious corporate raider.
"I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity," Booker said. "If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses … This kind of stuff is nauseating to me."
Former Rep. Harold Ford, Democrat of Tennessee., who, like Booker, is a surrogate for President Obama's re-election campaign, backed the mayor's comments. But that only meant a trip to the woodshed for both of them as the president's campaign leaned strongly on Booker—and less so on Ford—to walk back the comments.
But, although amusing and perhaps gratifying for the Romney campaign to see its rivals in disarray for a day, the message muddling of Sunday will not long endure. What will endure are the attacks on Romney as a heartless corporate raider. That's the true service Booker rendered to Romney on Sunday. He got the Obama campaign to reveal its plan and to own its attacks on free enterprise right now with nearly six months to go until the election.
One Democratic strategist worried the president's campaign may have unfurled this plan too early, "it's very hard to drive a negative message for five months." Don't fret; it's likely all voters are going to hear from now on. There will be no surprises – just a relentless assault on corporate raiders in general and Bain Capital and its founder in particular.
Last week, it was GST Steel, the Kansas City steel mill purchased by Bain Capital under Romney's watch, then bankrupted, and closed several years later. Then came Ampad, a subsidiary of Mead Corp. that Bain bought and later forced into bankruptcy. Who knows what will come next week, but it's a safe bet it will involve Bain, more Bain and still more Bain after that.
"This is not a distraction," the president said. "This is what this campaign is going to be about."
Why? The president can't talk about the economy—it has stubbornly refused to respond to his nearly $1 trillion in stimulus spending. He can't talk about great accomplishments in foreign policy—Americans are not known to rally around piecemeal withdrawals of the type he has executed in Iraq and plans to implement in Afghanistan. His healthcare plan faces an uncertain future, and voters already question the costs. And the social issues that keep Twitter alive with warring factions don't figure to help either candidate extensively.
Plus, Democrats believe this will work. In an otherwise entirely bleak 2010 cycle, they saw Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman—two women who had overcome tremendous odds to climb to the top of the corporate ladder—defeated by attacks on the very success they had attained. It was Whitman "trying to buy the election" and Fiorina's yachts and layoffs. But the theme was the same—they care about getting rich and helping the rich, not lifting the whole boat.
[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]
Just as Sen. Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, whose approval ratings were at an all-time low in 2010, couldn't allow the election to become a referendum on her, President Obama can't have the 2012 election be a referendum on him. So he will try to make it instead a referendum on Romney's time as head of Bain.
Will it work? According to a Gallup survey published May 21, the three most important issues for Americans are: "The cost of healthcare," "Unemployment" and "The federal budget deficit and debt." Obama leads Romney on the cost of healthcare, and Romney leads Obama by a healthy margin on the federal budget deficit and debt. Both candidates are effectively tied on the issue of unemployment.
The president's campaign sees Bain as a way to break that tie in its favor. If Romney falls into the familiar Republican trap of promising to "run government like a business," the president has an attack line ready.
"If your main argument for how to grow the economy is 'I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,' then you're missing what this job is about," President Obama said on Monday. "My job is to take into account everybody, not just some."
To prevail, Romney's campaign will have to demonstrate near flawless message discipline. Americans don't understand venture capital, and they're not likely to learn from seven-second sound bites on cable news. What they do know is times are tough, and many on the left are willing to make big business the fall guy for today's economic problems.
Romney's challenge will be to show Bain in a good light—to make Booker's point writ large. Romney will have to showcase companies such as Staples, where Bain's work has led to tens of thousands of jobs. He'll have to make the case Bain has created far more jobs than it has lost.
But it has to go beyond case studies. He has to demonstrate how and why venture capital is the lifeblood of any successful free enterprise system and that free enterprise still holds the best hope for restoring prosperity in America. He'll have to show why the "hope and change" of President Obama's 2008 campaign has become "despair and joblessness," and why these factors are unlikely to change without a change at the top.
Other issues may intervene—if the high court upholds Obamacare, that would open an entirely new front for Romney.
But the battles lines have been drawn and, thanks to Mayor Booker, openly declared. And Romney should know now—if he didn't already—that he can't win unless he can defeat the attacks on Bain.