The Obama campaign released this simple but brutal ad yesterday: A series of headlines from recent weeks about Romney’s tenure at Bain, outsourcing jobs, and use of offshore tax havens, set to audio of Romney’s off-key performance of “America the Beautiful” at a campaign event in Florida last January. TPM’s David Kurtz compares this ad to the Lyndon Johnson campaign’s now legendary “Daisy” ad from the 1964 election.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows appeared on NPR yesterday to discuss the ad, and during the course of that conversation, the comparison was made between what Obama is doing to Romney now to what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Republican operatives did to John Kerry’s military record in Vietnam during the 2004 Election. An excerpt from that conversation:
FALLOWS: It has. And I think it’s worth focusing on why this is such a potential problem for the Romney campaign. The entire reason behind his campaign through the last year in the Republican primaries and now in the next four months in the general election is that America has business problems. He is a businessman, therefore, he’s the right person for the job.
And what the Obama campaign is doing on the basis of this Bain imbroglio is something similar to what George W. Bush was doing to John Kerry back in 2004 in the episode known as swiftboating. And by that, I mean making something that a candidate has assumed to be his strength, which, in John Kerry’s case was his military background, into a weakness.
RAZ: And so if the Obama campaign can make Mitt Romney’s business background not the presumed basis of his campaign, but instead a source of controversy, a source of potential weakness for him, that really does make problems in the campaign for the Romney team.
So if the Obama campaign is swiftboating, as you say, Mitt Romney – I mean, one of the criticisms of John Kerry was that he didn’t respond to this back in 2004, and Romney is only started to respond to it.
FALLOWS: Exactly. And I should make clear, in saying swiftboating, I’m not asserting that these are false accusations. I’m just saying they have this jujitsu effect. And it’s actually surprising the Romney team is not better prepared for them than it is. Number one, because they’ve had the last eight years since the John Kerry episode. Number two, over the last year, this is what Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and others were using as their angle of attack on Mitt Romney’s business background too.
Fallows’s analogy of the Bain attack being political jiujitsu by turning a candidate’s strength into a potential liability is correct. However, there are a few other reasons why the swiftboating analogy is not accurate here that are worth pointing out (Full disclosure/background: I reviewed hundreds of pages of military records for Kerry and others while working at CNN during the course of the Swift Boat controversy as it was playing out in 2004.)
- After having reviewed multiple incident reports and service records obtained independently through Freedom of Information Act requests, documents filed contemporaneously at the time backed Kerry’s version of the events, every single time. In other words, the underlying basis for challenging Kerry’s service record was entirely false. In Romney’s case, independent reporting of multiple news organizations, as well as Bain Capital’s SEC filings and his 2002 testimony before the Ballot Law Commission in Massachusetts are the basis for questioning his version of events.
- The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were an independent 527 group. This ad – and the entire strategy of attacking Romney’s record at Bain – was a direct hit organized by the Obama campaign.
- Romney was attacked for his Bain record during the 2012 Republican primaries. He could have put a lot of these issues to rest if he had put the information out there months ago. Kerry’s military service was never challenged during the Democratic primaries, and did not become an issue until the Swift Boat group started running ads shortly after Kerry accepted his party’s nomination.
- His continued refusal to release tax returns beyond 2010 is also compounding the problem. Also consider that when Romney was being vetted to be John McCain’s possible running mate back in 2008, he gave the McCain campaign 23 years’ worth of tax returns. Even though his tax returns and the end of his tenure at Bain are two completely separate issues, the Obama campaign has effectively joined them together at the hip. In this respect, Romney’s response is similar to Kerry’s refusal to release his full personnel and medical file (Standard Form 180) back in 2004.
The Obama campaign has effectively turned Romney’s record in the private sector – in his words, one of the main reasons why he should be elected president – into a liability. However, after looking at everything the Swift Boat campaign did to John Kerry, the analogy should end there. Romney’s current problem is almost entirely of his own making – the conflicting answers he’s given in the past and last week, as well as the SEC documents and his own refusal to release more tax returns.
Update: Business Insider compares Romney’s handling of the Bain questioning to Bill Clinton’s infamous and widely mocked “the meaning of the word ‘is’” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Update II: Fallows has written a blog post elaborating on his swiftboating comments during the NPR interview. The whole thing is worth a read.
Update III: Another Kerry 2004/Romney 2012 comparison that has nothing to do with swiftboating - both candidates used the same slogan, “Believe in America.”