BOSTON, Mass. — A little birdie must have been sitting nearby during my lunch with a prominent Boston lawyer on Friday. We were discussing — what else? — the presidential elections, and the candidates’ relative chances of success.
My lunch partner has worked on the Obama campaign, has donated funds, and is an ardent supporter of the president. His characterization of the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, was blunt and unflattering: “He may have been the only one in that clown car of candidates who could tie his shoes, but that does not make him good,” he said, over fish and chips in a North Station bistro.
But, while he desperately wants Barack Obama to gain a second term, my lawyer friend was not overly optimistic about the odds.
“With the economy the way it is, Obama is a dead man walking,” he said. “The only way he can win this is if he turns the whole campaign into class warfare — us against them. But I’m afraid he is too honorable to take that approach.”
Well perhaps not too honorable at that.
On Monday, the Obama campaign released an explosive video that paints Mitt Romney as a vulture capitalist par excellence, a soulless millionaire interested only in his own profit, and caring not a whit for the little man.
A two-minute version of the ad will air in Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. A six-minute version can be seen online.
My Friday lunch date could have written the script.
The video tells of the liquidation of GST Steel, a plant in Kansas City, Missouri, that fell prey to Bain Capital in 1993. Romney is the founder and CEO of Bain, a company that has made him an extremely wealthy man.
As the workers tell it, the plant was a model of quality and efficiency until the “vampires” came.
In short order, GST steel was stripped of its assets, loaded with debt, and dissolved. The workers lost everything — pensions were drastically reduced, and they lost health and life insurance as well.
“I was devastated,” said Joe Soptic, a 30-year veteran of the plant, and one of the heroes of the video.
Perhaps the most damning testimony comes from David Foster, who was the lead negotiator for the workers in their dealings with Bain Capital.
“Private equity per se is not bad,” he said. “But what Bain Capital did was not capitalism, it was bad management … to load a company up with debt in order to extract immediate profits for yourself … is not what America needs.”
The message of the ad is quite clear: Romney is a very bad man. But just in case anyone missed it, the video strikes the same sore spot again and again.
“These guys had all the money they could ever spend,” said Soptic, “But they didn’t have the money to take care of the people who made ‘em the money.”
Foster does not mince words, either:
“When it becomes a business model, when it is deliberate, when it is a thought-out strategy to take value out of company and hurt others, and to talk about it as if it is the soul of capitalism, and, literally, the soul of America … nothing could be more offensive,” he said.
Voila. Class warfare.
“Obama has to make it ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” said my lawyer friend on Friday. “The Republicans are scared to death of this strategy, because they know they are vulnerable.”
I guess someone was listening.
The video has been criticized by the Romney campaign, which labeled it “Obama’s warped view of the free market.”
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul fired off an email trying to counteract the ad and shift the focus:
“We welcome the Obama campaign’s attempt to pivot back to jobs and a discussion of their failed record,” she said, according to Talking Points Memo. “President Obama has many questions to answer as to why his administration used the stimulus to reward wealthy campaign donors with taxpayer money for bad ideas like Solyndra, but 23 million Americans are still struggling to find jobs.”
Even a former official in the Obama administration called the ad “unfair.”
Steve Rattner, the “car czar” who helped hammer out a rescue package for Chrysler and General Motors in 2009, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday that the ad misrepresented Romney, Bain, and capitalism in general.
"I think the ad is unfair. Mitt Romney made a mistake ever talking about the fact that he created 100,000 jobs. Bain Capital’s responsibility was not to create 100,000 jobs or some other number. It was to create profits for his investors ... It did it superbly, acting within the rules and acting very responsibly.”
As for the unemployed workers from GST Steel, well, tough.
“I do think to pick out an example of somebody who lost their job unfortunately, this is part of capitalism, this is part of life. And I don’t think there’s anything Bain Capital did that they need to be embarrassed about," said Rattner, who is also, incidentally, a private equity investor and an investment banker.
It is too soon to tell how the ad is going to play, or whether the new strategy is going to work. But for now, it’s man the barricades at the Obama campaign.