For weeks, it seemed like Democratic criticisms of Mitt Romney's controversial private-sector background were viewed as a total failure. Republicans said it showed hostility towards capitalism; some high-profile Democrats balked; and many in the media predicted a public backlash. The entire line of attack was, were told, a dud.
Those perceptions appear to be changing. Last week, for example, the New York Times reported that Romney's Bain Capital rigged the game so that he would make millions, even when his investments failed. The week before, the Washington Post discovered that Romney's team were "pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States" to overseas.
The Times added over the weekend that "strategists in both parties" agree that President Obama's campaign is successfully raising doubts among voters as to Romney's commitment to the middle class, and the ads are "starting to make an impact on some undecided voters."
E.J. Dionne Jr. makes a very strong case today that "Romney's Bain problem" is serious.
The Bain ads have done double-duty, specifically undermining Romney but also serving as a parable for how aspects of the current financial system hurt workers and local communities. Profits and productivity can rise even as real wages stagnate or fall, and jobs can be offshored and outsourced. The Romney campaign's response to a recent Washington Post story describing Bain's record on outsourcing -- the campaign sought to "differentiate between domestic outsourcing versus offshoring" -- sounded more like bureaucratic gobbledygook than an effective answer. Obama picked up on the story immediately, calling Romney an "outsourcing pioneer."
But can the Obama campaign turn the argument over Romney and Bain into a broader challenge to the Republican claim that the only thing government can do to spur job creation is to get out of the way? "Jobs" will remain the Romney battle cry for the rest of the campaign, but the success of the anti-Bain offensive points to an opportunity for Obama to engage in a kind of political jujitsu. He can argue that Romney's primary interest is not in job creation at all but in low-tax and deregulatory policies he would favor whether the economy was soaring or flat.
Criticisms of Romney's style of vulture capitalism resonate on multiple levels. Just at the surface, Americans are presented with a straightforward message: this guy got rich breaking up American companies and laying off American workers.
At the same time, however, the story makes Romney appear indifferent towards the middle class, incompetent when it comes to rescuing struggling communities, and ineffective as an economic leader. Complicating matters, the message resonates most with the voters Romney needs most: white working-class men in Midwestern swing states.
The conventional wisdom in May was that Obama was wasting resources and political capital on a counter-productive attack. I'm glad those assumptions are getting another look now.