There are, perhaps, a number of reasons why Republican voters seem to lack enthusiasm for Mitt Romney. For one thing, he’s not only fired people in his career, but seems, by his own admission, to have enjoyed it. When a candidate makes a gaffe like that — especially a candidate who comes from a moneyed background and lives a privileged life — the image that comes to mind is one of the imperious CEO, dressed in suspenders and Italian loafers, feet up on the desk, chomping on a cigar as minions rain $100 bills down on his head (it doesn’t help that there exists a damning photo of Romney not too far from this caricature). Nobody votes for that guy for president.
Romney has tried to anticipate this attack, projecting the image of the All-American Businessman, patriarch of the All-American Family, defender of the All-American Way of Life. Until now, that strategy has, if not succeeded, gone relatively unchallenged throughout the months-long Invisible Primary and the first two nominating contests. However, now that Romney seems to be headed toward a convincing win, with his unmatched campaign machinery and heaps of cash, his rivals are getting desperate, and making his past as the head of a Wall Street buyout firm a major liability that could tarnish him throughout the rest of the campaign.
In a way, Romney invited the assault, by at least tacitly encouraging a blistering negative ad campaign against one of his chief opponents, Newt Gingrich (Romney’s donors and former aides funded the ads through an independent Super PAC, but when Gingrich confronted him about it at a debate, Romney ticked off the charges against Gingrich in detail and defended them). Now Gingrich’s allies are responding with a slick 28-minute ad focusing on Romney’s career at the buyout firm, Bain Capital — specifically, the parts of Romney’s career where he trimmed workforces in order to turn distressed companies into profitable ones.
The Gingrich ad is devastating, a vision of a nightmarish America that hits at every white, working-class American’s deepest insecurities. The ad is an exposè, of sorts, about Romney’s time at Bain, juxtaposing what the ad depicts, at least, as his lavish Wall Street lifestyle with the hardships endured by those who lost their jobs under Bain’s stewardship. More than that, though, the ad is at least implicitly a warning of what an America under President Romney might look like: an America where the rich get richer at the expense of the working class, where soulless vultures enrich themselves by kicking decent, hard-working Americans to the curb. That Gingrich’s Damascene conversion into an economic populist is, perhaps, disingenuous and politically expedient is beside the point. The point is that, if the attack sticks, the economic debate that Republicans so desperately want to have with President Obama suddenly becomes a personal one.
The attack is likely to be especially potent in states like South Carolina, the site of the next primary, where shuttered textile mills are a part of the landscape, and where the unemployment rate is 9.9 percent. The fact that the barrage has come so early is an especially ominous sign for Romney — if Gingrich’s team could find these stories, certainly journalists and President Obama’s opposition researchers can find others. After all, once a narrative is cemented in the Beltway, and in voters’ minds, it’s hard to undo.