Ah, the "Bain Story". It's the campaign narrative that simply refuses to die, no matter how Republicans try to wish it away. Mitt Romney's experience as the head of Bain Capital are both his attempt to prove his business savvy, and his opponents' attempt to paint him as the evil example of the 1%.
I'm not sure a lot of people - even the people who are trying to use Mitt's Bain experience as a cudgel against him - entirely understand why the attacks are working. And working they are. As much as "pro-business" types would like to turn Romney's business acumen into a net plus, as much as some private sector types want to paint Obama as an anti-Capitalist at least (or "socialist" at worst)... the protestations about "demonizing Mitt Romney" tend to underline that the attacks are working and something is sticking, though no one, exactly, can seem to say what it is.
One obvious point is that criticism of Romney, or of Bain more generally, is not, by itself, anti-business. One investment firm's choices are not some stand-in for the entire field private equity, and if there are aspects of the private equity world that trouble people... well, that's probably an ancillary benefit - possibly the only good thing - to come out of this debate. Private equity could stand more scrutiny, and certain practices deserve more consideration, both from a business perspective, and a more human one.
It's that "human perspective" that's probably the real story here, and why these stories of Bain's business practices are resonating with the voting public. It's not that Bain's key stakeholders made millions that really gets people down (bringing me back to an old, and apparently upsetting point for others that being rich and making money, by themselves, ae not bad things, necessarily), but it's the practices they employed to get that money. Specifically, what I think is resonating about these stories is simple and human.... it's the part about the layoffs. And the fact that laying people off seems mean.
One of Mitt Romney's main flaws as a candidate - and there are, after all, so many - is that he seems intent on a cerebral, logical argument for his election. He seems awkward and uncomfortable with direct emotional appeals to voters; he comes off, often, as cold. I'm not even sure these perceptions are accurate, yet they do seem to prevail.
And really, Romeny would be in worse shape if President Obama himself had a real strength in emotional appeal, but really, he lkind of doesn't. As we've all observed on the left... he's no Bill Clinton, in ways good and bad. And one of the bad is that, unlike Clinton, he doesn't establish the kind of immediate emotional connection that Clinton still does, almost effortlessly.
I don't think elections should be won or lost on emotional appeals... but these are difficult, emotional times, filled with uncertainty. Appealing to people's logic and clear thinking isprobably a waste of time. Across Europe, across North Africa and into the Middle East (the "Arab Spring"), it's clear that emotions are driving a lot of people's political judgments. Out with the old. Out with the insensitive. And out with the people who insist we have to think practically, above all else.
Bain's business decisions may, in the B-School sense, make perfectly logical sense. And I don't think "capitalism" is under any threat as a result of ads against Mitt Romney about Bain. Lots of people, even lower level workers, understand that business leaders make hard decisions when it comes to growing and sustaining a business. In practical terms, what's best "for the business" at a particular moment may include retrenchment, closings, firings. But on a personal level, those deciions are, almost always, painful ones. People will be hurt. Lives will be up-ended. There will be pain and suffering.
Mitt Romney isn't suffering bad perceptions about his work at Bain Capital because he seems like a bad businessman or not smart; rather, he's been hurt by these ads because he seems mean, unconcerned with the real-life consequences of firings and reversals and how they affect ordinary workers. And he's lousy at expressing empathy; he continues to talk about life changes and reversals with the distance of abstraction, and the cavalier superiority of someone who has, most likely, never known one. President Obama, no, doesn't do mcuh better; but when the focus is on Bain and Romney's business decisions, the quesiton isn't whether Obama can empathize more. It's whether Mitt Romney can empathize at all.
Conservatives are lousy with this stuff; they see Democrats and liberals as little more than sensitive wet rags, crying for trees, yelling about the poor, hugging the downtrodden and disdaining those who are normal, successful. Conservatives look to emotional appeals as a last resort, and even then, the emotions thay appeal to tend to be anger and superiority. You're better than they are. Be a winner. Let people in need learn to take care of themselves.
Liberalism, too, could probably stand to learn to be tougher, and rely less on these soggy emotional appeals. But by keeping the "Bain story" focused on the sense of bewilderment and loss, the suggestion that we can't turn our government over to someone so incapable of understanding the actual, practical impacts of layoffs and bottom line thinking... Democrats are on to something. It's something that can win this election. The problem of course is... once they win, there's no indication that these Democrats, however sensitive, will be any more help than those useless, cold business types.