Could Mitt have saved McCain's bacon?

Financial expertise is in short supply on the Republican ticket. But Romney's old company, Bain Capital, has its own problems

By Andrew Leonard
Published October 23, 2008 2:24PM (EDT)

Among the subset of Republicans who are less than enamored by Sarah Palin, there are some who are looking wistfully at the the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, and wondering, what might have been?

The theory is that a successful businessmen such as Romney, who raked in hundreds of millions as CEO of the private equity investment fund Bain Capital, and finished near the top of his class at Harvard Business School, would be better equipped to handle hard economic times than the governor of Alaska. An opinion piece in the University of Alabama's college newspaper, the Crimson White, caught the vibe on Tuesday.

A Romney ticket would have been able to respond to that question confidently -- we understand Wall Street, vote for John McCain and we'll make it through.

In the Midwest, the region most hotly contested between the two candidates, the message of economic salvation would be music to the ears of voters just looking to make ends meet. Why should they gamble with an untested Democrat when they could have an experienced Republican with a financial mogul at his right hand? Ohio and Pennsylvania, if not completely red on electoral maps, would be a nice shade of pink. Michigan, the state where Romney was born, would not have had a mass exodus of GOP campaign workers, at least not because of a failed campaign. Retirees in Florida would feel their investments would be safer in the hands of the Arizona senator's administration than in the hands of his Illinois counterpart.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda? One might, of course, question whether "a financial mogul" who campaigned in the primaries as the second coming of Ronald Reagan is exactly what voters desire. Aren't financial moguls exactly the people who largely created the current mess? And as The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick reported in 2007, Romney wasn't some kind of whiz-kid genius who knows his way around a derivatives trading desk. He was a specialist in the leveraged buyout; "he excelled as a deal maker, a buyer and seller of companies, a master at the art of persuasion."

And one can only imagine how Obama's campaign strategists would be pouncing on the latest news -- Bain Capital is far from immune to current economic turmoil. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that some of Bain Capital's "credit investment funds" are facing losses of up to 50 percent.

The intriguing aspect to this story is that the funds in question were created relatively recently, after the credit crunch began, in the hopes of capitalizing on what were considered relatively safe loans -- loans, ironically, issued by banks to fund leveraged buyout deals, which used to be Bain's bread and butter.

The market for leveraged loans -- senior loans issued by banks largely to fund buyout deals -- has plummeted in the last month...

Money managers such as Bain, Blackstone Group LP and Carlyle Group have piled into this business in recent months, hoping to scoop up low-priced credits of high-quality companies. In many ways, these credit investments were supposed to fill a hole created by the greatly diminished market for private-equity buyouts.

Romney is no longer involved with managing Bain Capital, but the symbolism is still evocative. Wall Street continues to be confounded by its own mess -- even the players wily enough to attempt to capitalize on misfortune are getting burned. I'm not sure how confidence-inspiring that would be in Ohio, or Pennsylvania.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2008 Elections Globalization How The World Works Mitt Romney Wall Street