Mitt Romney's campaign started Thursday with a rough ad calling President Obama a liar for his charges about Bain Capital outsourcing. It ended the day demanding Obama apologize for a campaign staffer who suggested Romney's confusing statements on when he left Bain might have involved a "felony." Oh, and for good measure? The campaign also demanded that the Boston Globe retract the story that led to Stephanie Cutter's "felon" suggestion: It revealed that while Romney insists he left Bain in February 1999, SEC filings show the firm still listed him as CEO as late as 2002.
I'm not calling Romney a felon, but it seems like providing incorrect or misleading information to the SEC could be a serious problem, either for Romney or for Bain Capital. I admit, the actual details of when Romney left Bain and what role, if any, he continued to play after February 1999 remain murky. But it seems to me Romney made these timing questions an issue himself, by trying to insist that Bain's outsourcing adventures took place after he left the firm to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. By the way, the Romney campaign also demanded that the Washington Post retract its original story about Bain's investments in outsourcing. The Post refused, and the Globe will too. Both papers had solid documentation for their stories.
The real problem is that Romney made his qualifications as a business leader his main calling card as a presidential candidate – and immediately began backpedaling away from his career. First he described himself as a "job creator," but when his own GOP rivals began digging up stories about Bain's role in destroying jobs, he stopped making that claim, while accusing his rivals of demonizing capitalism. Then, when the Obama campaign, and later the Washington Post, began pointing to Bain's investments in firms that sent jobs overseas, and even firms that specialized in helping other firms send jobs overseas, he insisted he was being blamed for investments and/or decisions made after he left Bain – setting off this search for proof of when he actually left the firm. Before the Boston Globe, both David Corn at Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo also found documents listing Romney as still involved at Bain later than he claimed.
More documents will almost certainly emerge. From SEC filings to Romney's various state and federal financial disclosure forms over the years, there's an amazing array of paperwork telling different stories about when Romney left Bain.
It's worth remembering that when he was running for Massachusetts governor in 2002, there were questions about his eligibility for state office, given that he'd spent two years working in Salt Lake City. That's when Romney described himself as only on leave from Bain. In 2002 Massachusetts disclosure forms he signed in 2003, Romney listed himself as a Bain "executive," making more than $100,000 a year. So back when it was useful to have Bain ties, Romney pointed to them. Now it's politically useful to have cut those ties in early 1999, so that's the story Romney tells.
It turns out that Romney's GOP rivals also peddled stories during the primary about the discrepancy in Romney's stories about when he left Bain – but the Romney campaign apparently managed to shut reporters down by insisting that Romney's rapid departure to helm the Olympics accounted for the apparent confusion. (BuzzFeed's Ben Smith explains it here.)
But when the Washington Post story came out, the campaign immediately wrote Romney's departure date in bright ink. "Governor Romney left Bain to lead the Salt Lake City Olympics in February 1999," the PowerPoint to combat the Post story insisted. That set off the search to figure out whether that was in fact true – and the discovery of various documents that gave different departure dates to different public agencies.
Of course, Romney might not be in any of this pain had he chosen to tell a simple story about his career in private equity: He was fabulously successful – he had a "sterling career," in Bill Clinton's regrettable words – making money for his clients, and yes, sometimes that involved layoffs and outsourcing and offshoring, because that's the way private equity works. Bloomberg View's Josh Barro, lamenting Romney's lack of "pride" in his private equity career, puts it this way:
Romney founded one of America's leading private equity firms. What private equity does is take underperforming firms and make them more profitable, sometimes by closing facilities and sending operations overseas. If he can't defend Bain's 1999-2002 record on the merits, he can't defend its record from 1984 to 1999 either.
Instead Romney got involved in silly debates over how many, if any, jobs he created, the difference between outsourcing and offshoring, and now, finally, the precise date at which he had any responsibility for Bain's business decisions. Ben Smith calls it a "trap," which implies it was set by someone else. But Romney really set it for himself.
I talked about Romney's Bain woes on MSNBC's "Hardball" Thursday: