James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Romney 2012: Is U.S. ready for its first buyout president?

April 12, 2011

Mitt Romney’s campaign launch for the Republican presidential nomination predictably avoided mentioning the Obamacare-like health plan he created as Massachusetts governor. But it also gently tiptoed around his financially successful career as a buyout boss. With the financial crisis still raw to voters, selling them on the first president to be drawn from the buyout barony will be tough.

Of course, if not for his successful run at Bain Capital, Romney wouldn’t be a leading player in the 2012 sweepstakes for the White House. It made him fabulously wealthy and provided a full BlackBerry of Wall Street and corporate contacts to tap for campaign cash. The eventual GOP nominee will need a bursting wallet as he or she faces off against a sitting president who might raise $1 billion to fund re-election.

Just as importantly, Romney’s time at Bain lets him uniquely position himself as a venture capitalist and corporate turnaround artist who understands how private-sector jobs are created. The messaging: A Mr. Fix-it for the U.S. economy vs. rivals who are all creatures of government.

But even Romney knows it isn’t quite that simple. During his video announcement, he pointedly says, “Sometimes I was successful and helped create jobs. Other times I wasn’t.” While Romney will highlight his winning investments, such as Staples and The Sports Authority, aspects of his business record are vulnerable to attack. Fixing companies, after all, sometimes means firing workers. During Romney’s failed 1994 U.S. Senate race, incumbent Democrat Ted Kennedy ran a series of ads with laid-off workers savagely denouncing him. “Basically, he cut our throats,” said one.

Romney also expects to be portrayed as little more than a financial engineer who made money for himself and partners by forcing acquired companies to take on debt to pay them a special dividend. To the average American, that may sound a lot like the exotic financial strategies that helped lead to the bank meltdown. Romney will counter, of course. But as the saying goes, a politician who is explaining is one who is losing.

Then there’s his healthcare plan, which the White House says, with what appears a hint of sarcasm, was a model for theirs. To many Republican voters, that alone disqualifies Romney from higher office. Back at Bain, he was known as a super-salesman. Selling Romney Inc. will be his most challenging pitch yet.

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