There's a spirited debate underway on the relevance of Mitt Romney's controversial private-sector background -- even the party lines have been blurred -- but I continue to think the Republican's record while in office is arguably the greater vulnerability.
On "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, host Chris Wallace asked a series of pointed questions to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama, but there was one question in particular that stood out for me.
Wallace asked Ryan:
"You know, it's not just a question of vision, it's also a question record because of these men have served in office and have records in office. So, let's take a look at that.
"Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts for four years, Congressman Ryan. And during that time, Massachusetts ranked 47th of the 50 states in job creation. The only reason the unemployment rate went down [was] because so many people left the work force -- more than any other state in the country except Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Is that a record to be proud of?"
The question only took 15 seconds to say, but it's easy to imagine it showing up in an Obama campaign ad.
When Ryan pushed back and said the unemployment rate in Massachusetts went down during Romney's one term, Wallace again reminded him, "If I may, sir, again over the four years, 47th in job creation and unemployment rate went down because so many people were leaving the state."
Ryan didn't have much of a response, so he changed the subject to the "contrast in visions" and Romney's support for an "opportunity society." (There's that phrase again.)
The larger point, of course, is that we're looking at a campaign dynamic without a modern precedent, especially for a governor running for the White House. In 2000, George W. Bush said, "Look at what I did in Texas." In 1992, Bill Clinton said, "Look at what I did in Arkansas." In 1980, Ronald Reagan said, "Look at what I did in California."
And in 2012, Mitt Romney is saying, "Look at what I did at Bain Capital."
You know there's a problem for Romney when his own top surrogates struggle to defend his record in Massachusetts -- his only experience in government -- during a Fox News interview.
Indeed, let's also not forget that Jon Huntsman, who's endorsed Romney, said through his campaign last summer, "The reality is Mitt Romney's record on job creation was abysmal by every standard."
As we talked about last week, this is probably an untenable scenario. At a certain point, a former governor running for president is going to have to talk about his tenure as governor.
And when the subject comes to the fore, it might be difficult for Romney to explain his awful record on jobs, as well as the fact he failed to impress much of anyone when he tried to lead.
"His favorability was basically a straight line down from his honeymoon," said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University's Political Research Center and a longtime Massachusetts pollster. "Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt." [...]
Romney entered the Massachusetts State House in January 2003 with a flashy favorability rating of 61 percent.... By November 2004, voters were souring, and a Suffolk poll found his favorable rating had dropped to 47 percent... By November 2006, as he closed out his increasingly absentee term, his overall job approval rating had cratered to 36 percent.
This isn't just because Massachusetts is a reliably "blue" state. It's had plenty of modern Republican governors -- Weld, Cellucci, Swift -- and all were more popular with their Bay State constituents than Romney.
Opinions vary as to the propriety and efficacy of criticizing Romney's record of leveraged buyouts and mass layoffs. But it seems to me the presumptive Republican nominee will be in even bigger trouble when attention turns to his four years as governor, when he presumably had a chance to apply the lessons he learned at Bain Capital.