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The Bain Debate: How Much Will Voters Care About Romney’s Role?

May 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Following President Obama's lead, Vice President Joe Biden joined the fray Tuesday in questioning Mitt Romney's role at Bain Capital. Judy Woodruff hosts a debate on political strategy and private-sector experience between former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The politics of private equity have come to the fore of the presidential campaign. Today, the president’s reelection team kept up its attacks on Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: He’s talking about he’s better qualified to be president because of his business experience. So, look, he raised it. So let’s take a look at his business experience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vice President Biden joined the fray in questioning Mitt Romney’s private sector background today, one day after President Obama made it clear he believes it’s fair to examine Romney’s tenure at the private equity firm Bain Capital.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president defended a television ad released by his campaign last week featuring interviews with former employees at a Kansas City steel mill that Bain Capital acquired.

MAN: They made as much money off of it as they could and they closed it down. They filed for bankruptcy without any concern for the families or the communities.

MAN: It was like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the ad’s focus, portraying Romney as a corporate raider, has drawn fire even among the president’s own supporters. Newark Mayor Cory Booker added to the storm on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”

CORY BOOKER (D), mayor of Newark, N.J.: This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It is nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Romney camp released its own Web video response last week, touting Bain’s role in bankrolling another steel company, SDI.

WOMAN: I think there’s a lot of pride in what we’ve built out here.

NARRATOR: But SDI almost never got started. When others shied away, Mitt Romney’s private sector leadership team stepped in.

MAN: Building a dream with over 6,000 employees today.

NARRATOR: Have you had enough of President Obama’s attacks on free enterprise? His own key supporters have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yesterday came another Romney Web ad using Booker’s comments and those of former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford and former Obama administration auto czar Steven Rattner, all in defense of Bain.

On MSNBC last night, Booker said that was unfair.

CORY BOOKER: And so here they are plucking sound bites out of that interview to be — to manipulate them in a cynical manner, to use them for their own purposes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In his remarks yesterday, President Obama defended Booker, and said Romney’s business record was fair game.

BARACK OBAMA: This is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about, is, what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a new Washington Post-ABC News poll out today shows that voters agree — 52 percent of those asked cited the economy as the single most important issue this election, but 54 percent said Romney’s work with Bain was not a major factor.

When asked which candidate they would trust to do a better job handling the economy, a virtual dead heat; 46 percent chose President Obama, 47 percent, Gov. Romney. Romney has not addressed the issue of his time at Bain directly in recent days, but in a conference call, Romney adviser former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu said: “The Bain record, as a whole, is fair game. I think what you have to do is an honest evaluation.”

This is not the first time Romney’s been attacked on his Bain record.

NARRATOR: Mitt Romney became CEO of Bain Capital the day the company was formed.

WOMAN: They fire people. They cut benefits. They sell assets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney faced similar criticism during the Republican primaries from a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich.

So is the Bain campaign push a wise political strategy for the president? And how will the Romney camp respond if the attacks keep up?

Well, to debate all this, we’re joined by Jim Talent. He’s a former senator from Missouri and a top adviser to Mitt Romney. And Ted Strickland, the former governor of Ohio and a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

Gentlemen, we thank you both for being with us.

Sen. Talent, to you first.

The Romney camp is saying it’s fair game to talk about his record at Bain Capital, so what is it in these ads that is off-base?

JIM TALENT, former U.S. senator, R-Mo.: Well, they’re false and misleading attacks on private equity, and basically an attempt to distract the voters from the failed economic policies of the Obama administration and the condition of the country.

I mean, we have had unemployment above 8 percent for longer than the Great Depression, and the president doesn’t want to talk about his policies. And so they’re launching these attacks on private equity and free enterprise. And they’re misleading. And, of course, that’s what a number of Democrats have been saying in the last few days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it — just quickly, Sen. Talent, what is it that’s false about what the ads say?

JIM TALENT: Well, first of all, one ad attacked Gov. Romney for the closure of a steel plant that occurred two years after he left Bain Capital.

But more broadly speaking, firms that invest in distressed companies can’t save them all. It’s like doctors can’t save all their patients, but, on balance, Bain under Gov. Romney created well over 100,000 jobs, which is certainly more than has been created in the Obama administration because we’re down over 500,000 over the last three-and-a-half years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Strickland, how do you respond to that?

TED STRICKLAND (D), former Ohio governor: Well, I say to my friend Jim Talent those are good talking points, but the reality is when President Obama became the president, the month he took the oath of office, this country had lost almost 800,000 jobs.

He’s not responsible for that. And he’s not attacking private equity and he’s not attacking free enterprise. He’s simply attacking what Rick Perry called vulture capitalism, where investors get really, really rich by buying companies, loading them up with debt, driving them into bankruptcy, taking away jobs and pensions and health care from workers.

But Mitt Romney and his associates at Bain Capital walked away with multiple millions of dollars. That’s what the president’s talking about. And this is not a distraction. This is going to be the central part of the campaign, as it ought to be.

TED STRICKLAND: Which of these two candidates has demonstrated a concern for working people? And my contention is that Mitt Romney has looked out for his investors, but he hasn’t really cared for the workers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me — and, Sen. Talent, there are workers who are quoted in these ads, Sen. Talent, who are saying some of the same things that Gov. Strickland just said.

JIM TALENT: Well, Judy, first of all, the investors in Bain Capital were largely pension funds. So the people who benefited from it were teachers and policemen and firefighters and retirees.

But, look, the White House knows the way private equity works. There’s a reason Ted’s argument is Basically with people like Mark Warner and Steve Rattner, who was the White House’s auto czar at the time, by the way, that GM was closing dealerships in order to fix the companies, with Cory Booker. It’s with our old colleague Harold Ford Jr., who have all criticized the ads.

And many of them defended Bain Capital’s record as very strong, very successful and very ethical because it had a strong record of creating jobs. That’s why the firm is successful. Four start-up companies alone, Steel Dynamics, Bright Horizons, Staples and Sports Authority created over 100,000 jobs.

And, Ted, we have lost a net of at least 500,000 jobs on President Obama’s watch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Strickland, what about that and these other Democrats he mentioned who have said that the line of attack in these ads is not fair?

TED STRICKLAND: Well, quite frankly, the president came to power with a horrendous economic set of circumstances.

He is rebuilding this economy. He’s doing it the right way, by focusing on the middle class. He’s investing in education and our infrastructure. And he’s trying to put forth programs that will benefit small business. The fact is that this president has been stopped by the Congress every time he’s tried to take positive action.

But in spite of that, the economy’s getting better. The economy in Ohio today is much healthier because the president saved the auto industry, because manufacturing is coming back. Living wage jobs are being created. And so the president is the one who has a program to move the country forward, Judy.

Mitt Romney is trying to use his experience as a venture capitalist as the justification for being president. He doesn’t talk a lot about his experience and his record as governor. He wasn’t a successful governor. Michigan ended up, I think, being 37th in the nation in terms of job creation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me stop you there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just stop you there, because I want to come back to Sen. Talent.

Yes, go ahead.


Yes, Judy, look, the problem isn’t that Congress didn’t give the president what he wanted. The problem is that they did. And he got the stimulus plan, which he won’t even talk about now, got Obamacare. And to say that this economy is being rebuilt, I have to tell you, median income in the United States down $4,300. People are working harder and harder than ever before and barely staying in place.

The unemployment rate has effectively not gone down from where it was at the peak of the recession. The only reason it’s gone technically from 10 percent to 8 percent is so many people are discouraged and have quit work. This economy is not getting better and the president’s policies are the reason.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Talent, just quickly, I did look again at what the president said yesterday. He said, yes, private equity has a healthy role to play in the free market. He said that’s part of a what a lot of businesspeople do. He talked about the role of private equity and identifying capacity in the economy to create new jobs.

But he said the role of a president is to look after the economic health of the whole community, the whole country, and not just of a company, which is what a — would take place in a venture capital deal.

JIM TALENT: Well, let’s — Judy, let’s tell the people at Solyndra that. Tell the people at Evergreen Solar.

The Department of Energy’s inspector general — and he’s a non-political appointee — found that billions of dollars were channeled to companies that have been started by politicians who were friends of the president. So the president has looked after those companies pretty well.

Look, these are attacks, misleading attacks on — basically on private equity. That’s how Harold Ford saw it, our old colleague, Steve Rattner, now Mark Warner, and I think there are going to be more Democrats coming forward because these attacks are so unfair and so misleading.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gov. Strickland, the president’s focus here on economic fairness, is that a wise thing for the president to be doing in this campaign?


Who doesn’t believe in fairness? And the fact is that the president has not attacked free enterprise. He’s not attacked venture capitalism. He’s attacked Mitt Romney’s assertion that he should be president because he made a lot of money for himself and his investors.

And the president was absolutely correct. The president’s job is to look out for all Americans, not just the investor class. And the fact is that this president took a horrendous situation. Now, Mitt Romney wants to take us back to the Bush policies that led to this recession. And, as Bill Clinton said, he wants to do it on steroids.

We have got to move forward, not backward. The president is leading. He is laying out a solid foundation. And all we need now is for this Congress to get behind him, to cut taxes for small business, as he’s trying to do, to invest in our infrastructure, to expand health care to our people.


TED STRICKLAND: The president has a plan. Mitt Romney wants to go back to the Bush era strategies, and that’s a disaster for this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, we’re going to leave it there.

Former Sen. Jim Talent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, thank you both.