Democrats balk at Obama campaign’s sustained attack on Bain Capital

Some influential Democrats on and off Capitol Hill are refusing to give President Obama political cover for his attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital. 

Despite pushback from more than a half-dozen Democrats, the Obama campaign on Tuesday defended how it has scrutinized Romney’s business background.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a widely respected member of Congress, stopped short of criticizing the president, but made it clear that the campaign should pivot.

“It’s done,” she said. “Go on to other things now.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told The Hill, “I think the average American … hopes that this campaign will focus on competing visions for how to strengthen our economy, help create jobs and move the country forward.”

Pressed on whether he thought Obama’s campaign had operated within those guidelines, Coons paused.

“I’m not going to comment on President Obama’s ad,” he said, shaking his head vigorously.

Coons and Feinstein are not alone. Other Democrats who are less than enthusiastic to Obama’s Bain ad include former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, ex-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.) and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker. Rendell called negative ads “disappointing,” while Booker called the specific ad “nauseating.” 

Those negative reviews fit with the GOP’s playbook of portraying Obama as one of the most polarizing presidents. But Democratic operatives say Obama’s 2012 campaign tactics must be different than 2008, when he ran on the slogan of hope and change. Drawing a contrast between the president and Romney is the key to winning a second term, they maintain.

While Obama’s campaign is not retreating, the White House was put on the defensive Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Obama said Romney’s private-sector experience was “what this campaign is going to be about.” 

During the White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney faced a string of questions on the issue.

Romney is “running as a businessman who can do for America what he did for private equity,” Carney told reporters. “I think Americans would expect that credential deserves some scrutiny.” 

The comments echoed those made by other senior administration officials on Tuesday who said that Romney hasn’t been touting his record as governor but highlighting his experience as an industry executive in an election where the economy has taken center stage. 

The senior administration officials said that while people on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” set might have a problem with their handling of Romney’s business background, voters think it’s highly relevant.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday backed the president up, saying, “I believe that Gov. Romney, who holds himself out to be this great businessman, should have his record looked at. I have no problem with this.” 

ADVERTISEMENT
Other Democrats also defended Obama. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Bain was “absolutely a legitimate focus.” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) made similar comments.

In an indication of how rocky the day was for Obama, however, one surrogate for the president generated controversy in his defense of the ad against Romney.

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said Romney’s business practices amounted to “raping companies and leaving them in debt” for his own profit. 

The Obama campaign quickly distanced itself from those remarks, telling media outlets it “strongly disagrees with Congressman Clyburn’s choice of words — they have no place in this conversation.”

With less than six months to go before the election, both parties are focusing intently on fundraising. Some Democrats are privately worried that Obama’s effort to highlight Bain will scare off big donors.

The Hill reported earlier this year that over the last three cycles, Democrats have accepted far more than the GOP in political donations from executives at Bain Capital.

While Obama’s team has presumably accepted a possible fundraising backlash from private-equity donors, many congressional Democrats don’t want that well to dry up. 

Over the last several weeks, Democratic lawmakers have noted that Obama’s campaign has not yet committed to transferring money to Democratic congressional campaign committees. 

When a reporter on Tuesday asked Carney if it was hypocritical for Obama to rip his opponent while holding Wall Street fundraisers for his campaign, Carney responded that “those individuals are not running for president.”

Romney has pushed back hard, claiming that Obama is demonizing the private sector. His campaign sent around edited clips of Booker, Ford and former Obama auto czar Steve Rattner, who all indicated Obama had crossed the line.

It also sent out a clip of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) saying Bain was “a very successful business.” But it didn’t include his next comment that public service requires a “different skill set” and that Romney’s time at Bain is “a valid topic of debate.”

Warner told The Hill that the release showed “a pattern of the Romney campaign [using] partial quotes.” Warner, who made millions of dollars in the telecommunications industry, walked away before he could be asked any follow-up questions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Rendell on Tuesday said he thought Romney’s time at Bain is fair game. But if it were his campaign, Rendell added, he would have crunched the numbers and found out if Romney created or lost more jobs at Bain.

“I would’ve run the ad, but I would’ve run it a little differently, and I would’ve tried to get the net number before — that’s the key,” he said.

Following his Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Booker walked his comments back. He also cried foul about being used by Romney’s campaign, saying GOP officials were “plucking sound bites out of that interview to manipulate them in a cynical manner.” 

Ford said he agreed “with the core” of Booker’s original statements. Former Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who regularly rebukes his party and has spoken of joining the GOP, said the ad followed “a lazy, sloppy trend of discrediting professions instead on focusing on how a given professional carried out his ethical responsibilities.”

— Amie Parnes and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.