There's a scene in the movie Up in the Air in which George Clooney's character, a corporate hatchet man who flies around the country firing people on behalf of his merger masters, turns to his eager young apprentice and explains why he's able to avoid romantic entanglements:
"You know that moment when you look into somebody's eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet just for a second?"
She answers, "Yes."
And Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, replies with hollow certainty, "Right, well I don't."
Ladies and gentlemen, meet former Gov. Mitt Romney, the "Up in the Air" candidate. Romney's Bain Capital was the living embodiment of the Up in the Air ethic: form an investment group, take over the businesses, and fire the workers to pay off the investors. The human wreckage that resulted was merely collateral damage.
On Monday, Mitt Romney strung together seven words that should never be connected by any candidate: "I like being able to fire people." Romney was speaking about being able to fire people providing him services, but the quotation figures to haunt him long after its context has been forgotten.
That because of Romney's long-term problem: the feeling among voters that in many cases, "I like being able to fire people" is exactly what he meant for the workaday folks at the companies Bain Capital picked clean.
As the New York Times put it in their editorial, "The Corporate Candidates,"
The problem with Mr. Romney's pitch is the kind of businessman he was: specifically, a buyer of flailing companies who squeezed out the inefficiencies (often known as employees) and then sold or merged them for a hefty profit. More than a fifth of them later went bankrupt…This kind of leveraged capitalism…is one of the reasons for the growth in the income gap, tipping the wealth in the economy toward the people at the top.
One of these companies, as according to Reuters, was a steel mill in Kansas City that Bain took over in 1993 and went bankrupt in 2001, putting 750 people out of work. Reuters reports that Bain's profits were $12 million on its $8 million initial investment and at least $4.5 million in consulting fees
Meanwhile, one of the people Bain helped put out of work,
Joe Soptic found a job as a school custodian. The $24,000 salary was roughly one-third of his former pay, and the health plan did not cover his wife, Ranae.
When Ranae started losing weight, "I tried to get her to the doctor and she wouldn't go," Soptic said. She ended up in the county hospital with pneumonia, where doctors discovered her advanced lung cancer. She died two weeks later.
Soptic was left with nearly $30,000 in medical bills. He drained a $12,000 savings account and the hospital wrote off the balance.
"I worked hard all my life and played by the rules, and they allowed this to happen," Soptic said.
Gov. Rick Perry's campaign has gleefully jumped on Romney's "I like being able to fire people" stumble and turned it into a ringtone, since Perry's towel-snapping days at A&M are never far behind him. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, bankrolled by (ironically) antilabor casino owner Sheldon Adelson, is running ads and infomercials in South Carolina hammering Romney over Bain. Copying Sen. Teddy Kennedy in '94, Gingrich is relying on the laid-off workers to tell Romney's story. And even former Gov. Jon Huntsman, the supposed nice guy in the campaign, told MSNBC's Morning Joe on Tuesday that Romney has no "core".
All of this is laying down an effective emotional narrative for the Obama re-election campaign. Voters, as any pollster can tell you, decide how they feel about a candidate and once they have there's little you can do to change it. The question isn't whether the Bain attacks have factual resonance, the question is whether they have emotional resonance.
Should Romney get the nomination—and odds are he will—the emotional belief that Mitt Romney is the empty, "Up in the Air" Candidate will be his undoing in November.