Every time Mitt Romney has run for office, his Democratic opponent has made a big deal about his career at Bain Capital. But in the last 25 years, the Democratic attack has changed, and so has Romney's response to it. Will President Obama's Bain ads, released this week, be effective like in 1994? Or a failure like in 2002? It helps to look at how both sides have adapted to the Man of the People arms race.
Race: 1994 Senate campaign in Massachusetts against incumbent Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Democrat's Charge: Romney looked like a serious threat to Kennedy by the early fall, and in September the senator began airing a series of six ads about Bain Capital, focusing specifically on Ampad, a paper company Bain bought in 1992 and used to acquire a paper factory in Marion, Indiana, according to newspaper accounts at the time. The ad claimed Bain forced the factory to lay off 350 workers and told them they could reapply for their old jobs with at 25 percent wage cut. (Ampad later went bankrupt.) "He has cut our wages to put money in his pocket," a worker complained in one ad. At a parade where Romney marched, Indiana workers were handing out leaflets. "Seeing the strikers up close like this, in person, makes you really think about their situation," a woman in the parade crowd said, according to an October 10, 1994 Globe story. "I was kind of attracted to Romney. But this really make me rethink things. I'm undecided now."
Romney's Response: As New York's Benjamin Wallace-Wells notes, Romney was forced to say, "I'm happy to meet with the workers and hear their concerns and see if there's anything I can do… But I'm in no position to negotiate with the union negotiators or the company negotiators." He started cutting ads depicting himself as a man of the people. He told a crowd that Kennedy was like how "a pickpocket creates a diversion" -- an oddly Uncle Moneybags response. He conceded that Kennedy was a nice guy: "I don't think he's a bad person... I just think he's out of touch," Romney told a crowd, as the Globe reported October 14, 1994.
What Was Unique: It wasn't ancient history. Workers were getting laid off during the campaign. Bloomberg's Paul M. Barrett reported earlier this year how after the Independence Day holiday, workers returned to find this note: "As of 3 p.m. today, July 5, 1994, your employment with SCM Office Supplies Inc. will end." Wallace-Wells explains that one of the Indiana workers, Harold Kellogg, roadtripped with five of his coworkers to Boston. They traveled around telling their story. When Kennedy's ads first aired, the Boston Globe speculated that "voters may see this series as the powerful Kennedy machine beating up on that nice young man." That was not the case. By October 7, 1994, the Boston Globe's headline was "Poll Suggests Kennedy is Halting Romney Gains." The paper's pollster, Gerry Chervinsky, explained "A doubt has been raised in people's minds about whether Romney really is on the side of the working person."
Outcome: In the year of the Republican Revolution, in which the party captured a majority in both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Romney lost by 17 percentage points.
Race: 2002 campaign for Massachusetts governor against state treasurer Shannon O'Brien.
Democrat's Charge: O'Brien imported Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh to campaign for her and talk about all the jobs lost at the paper plant. "Perhaps if they hadn't insisted on driving these workers to the wall, they could have still made a very handsome profit and could have saved the tragedy in those people's lives and for that community," Bayh said, according to an October 23, 1994 Associated Press report. An ad airing in late October featured a narrator -- not the testimonial of hurting workers -- saying:
"Hold it Mitt Romney. 'Trust you on jobs?' Remember it was Romney's firm that bought an Indiana paper company. They cut workers' wages, slashed health benefits, eliminated their retirement plan, and instituted a 12-hour work day. "Romney said, quote, 'This is not fantasy land. This is the real world.' And now Romney wants us to trust him with our jobs and our economy?"
Romney's Response: Romney made the same "rich person doesn't care about other people's money" attack against O'Brien that she was trying to make about him. Romney ran a devastating ad showing O'Brien as a sleeping guard dog as suit-wearing bad guys looted the state pension fund. It noted her husband was a lobbyist. The Boston Globe story from October 1, 2002 reporting that Bain attacks were coming previewed exactly why they didn't stick on the second try:
Romney advisers, however, are confident that they can blunt the attacks by emphasizing his recent triumph - taking over the troubled Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and running it successfully. In addition, they feel that O'Brien, because of the state pension fund's investments in Enron, and her position with the failed health care firm Community Care Systems, is vulnerable on the same issue. They note that her chosen running mate, venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli, was a partner in a firm that has invested in some of the same deals as Bain Capital.
With that fresh accomplishment in Salt Lake City, it didn't sound quite so heartless when Romney said, "No one can bat 1.000… Those things do happen, they're terrible."
What Was Unique: O'Brien's campaign didn't start attacking Romney for his Bain career until October, according to news reports, a few weeks later than Kennedy. She wasn't able to use the newly-laid off workers to speak about events that were by then eight years old. Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin writes that Romney's "slick tactic… simultaneously distanced Romney, Bain’s CEO until 2001, from the firings while accusing Gabrieli of having closer connections to the layoffs himself." Plus, he was able to accuse Democrats of "exploiting" workers.
Outcome: Romney won by 5 percentage points.
Race: Really, this is two races -- the 2012 Republican presidential primary and the 2012 general election against President Obama.
(Newt Gingrich's and) Democrat's Charge: Newt Gingrich merely re-aired the 1994 argument about Romney's record, but with better production values.
Obama -- and his Super PAC -- got testimonials from workers at at different company that went bankrupt under Bain management: GST Steel. Their website for Bain attacks -- RomneyEconomics.com -- features three companies, suggesting more ads are coming. In the first ads, Obama's campaign got grizzled men to talk on camera about still feeling angry about losing their jobs.
Romney's Response: Romney is attacking Obama for doing the same thing that Bain did -- cut costs by firing people -- in the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. On Friday, his campaign released a web video featuring workers from the auto supplier Delphi, claiming that union workers got preferential treatment over non-union workers. "I think they truly did pick winners and losers in the auto bailout," one worker says. A woman who says a union friend got to hold on to benefits while she did not says, "It's unjust. And when the government is using my own tax money to make this choice and declare me, you know, not deserving, I feel that they have disdain for us."
What Makes It Unique: Obama's ads don't feature any women, which Kennedy's ad did. In fact, Kennedy's ad had a woman saying she had to ask permission from the foreman to use the bathroom -- a particular bit of humiliation that would capture any woman's attention. Romney's ad does. But his argument that Obama is just as abusive of people as he's been -- the same claim he made against O'Brien -- has a small hitch. As NBC News' First Read points out, there's no way for Romney to claim that Obama personally profited from the Detroit bailout. Still, that line about "disdain" paints Obama as no Man of the People. Being the defender of the little guy is what Obama's going for.
Outcome: Gingrich won two states -- but it's hard to attribute that to the attacks in Bain. We have six months till we find out what happens against Obama.