BOSTON, MA — It wasn’t meant to be this way. For months Democrats had planned to wait until Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination and then they would unleash their secret weapon. Well, not-so-secret weapon, really: it’s something that most observers say cost Romney his campaign against Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994, and has bedeviled him in every campaign since.
The weapon is one short and unfortunately homophonic word: Bain. As in Bain Capital, the corporate management firm Romney helped to found and made his millions out of, raking in almost comically huge sums of money often even as the bought-up companies shrank, shriveled and shuttered.
Mitt Romney’s campaign has long been prepared to face tough attacks on Bain Capital’s history of layoffs. But what’s been a persistent headache has swollen into an aching migraine. And one of the people leading the charge tells TPM that the person most responsible is typically no friend of the Democrats at all; in fact, it’s Newt Gingrich.
Randy Johnson is front and center of a campaign by the National Democrats to call attention to downsizing at Bain. He lost his job during a Bain bout of “downsizing,” and he’s currently being ferried around the country by Democrats trying to put a human face on the story. He’s not the whole of the story; the campaign has become a many pronged one: on Monday, for instance, the Dems put out their first video on the topic, challenging Romney over his oft-cited statistic that he created 100,000 jobs at Bain. Meanwhile, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has taken to calling him a “job cremator.” But Johnson has become something of a star.
Johnson tells me he’s lost count of how many press conferences, rallies, and town halls he’s been to over the last two weeks. We meet to discuss his primary blitz at the Massachusetts Democrats’ party headquarters in Boston, where Romney’s campaign is also located.
“Mitt Romney as he runs for President has decided to make job creation a big piece of it,” Johnson tells me. “And if he’s going to make a big piece of it he has to be accountable for what he’s done.
He recounts his now familiar story: in 1992, Bain took over a company, Ampad, which in turn bought the Marion factory where Johnson worked. Under new management, he and his fellow workers returned from their July 4 holiday to find they had been fired en masse and had to reapply for their old jobs. Those who came back were greeted with lower wages and stingier health and pension benefits. As conditions worsened, workers rebelled against their treatment and went on strike. Johnson took their story public and Democrats used it to go after Romney in his 1994 Senate run.
Johnson’s efforts may have helped stop Romney from defeating Ted Kennedy that year, but things only got worse after the campaign ended. Within months, the company shut down the factory entirely, leaving all of its employees out of a job, and Ampad eventually went bankrupt in 2000. But despite its disastrous arc, Bain made huge profits off the company — as much as $100 million — thanks to revenue from management fees and selling off shares of its stock, which they took public in 1996.
Romney has fiercely defended his tenure at Bain, saying that ultimately his successful investments outweighed his failures and accusing his Republican rivals of undermining free enterprise. But it’s stories like Ampad in which jobs were cut, companies ruined, but Bain still stayed in the black, that have become the dominant line of attack against Romney. And, shockingly, Democrats are mostly in the backseat as Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry go off on anti-Bain rants that increasingly resemble an Occupy Wall Street manifesto.
“You have to ask the question, is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and then walk off with the money?” Gingrich said in New Hampshire on Monday.
Soon South Carolina voters will get a look at an entire anti-Romney documentary focused on Bain’s layoffs — all paid for by a Super PAC supporting Gingrich.
Johnson specifically credits his re-emergence not to Democrats, but to Newt Gingrich. After the former Speaker ad-libbed an attack last month suggesting Romney return the money he made “bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain,” Johnson was called up for an interview with ABC News on the topic, then Ed Schultz’s show on MSNBC, and then finally the DNC.
“It just snowballed,” he told TPM. “Now everyone wants to talk.”
The spate of recent Bain stories isn’t without its dangers for Democrats. Because it’s becoming an issue earlier than anticipated, it could lose some oomph by the time the general election rolls around.
“By raising the Bain issue now, Gingrich has made it more likely that it will be ‘old news’ in the fall,” Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, told TPM. “In that sense, Bain may be to Romney as Reverend Wright was to Obama.”
Regardless of the risks, the opportunity to feed the fire around Romney’s job creator brand is too juicy to pass up. Not only do their attacks now have a bipartisan sheen, but because the GOP primary is dominating the news cycle, they can reach a large audience with their attacks without having to spend a dime on advertising.
Everything seems to be coming together at the right time. The increased scrutiny of Bain dovetails with a parallel effort to paint the ultra-wealthy Romney as disconnected from average Americans. On Monday, Democrats giddily passed around a Romney quote from that morning about providing more flexibility to switch health care providers in which he said “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
It’s not an enjoyable experience and it’s not something you should make light of,” Schultz told TPM. “To say that he likes firing people, it’s another examples of how out of touch he is, of the callous disregard he has for working families and people who are just trying to make ends meet.”
Just one more video clip for the ever-growing pile, which includes such highlights as “corporations are people” and Romney’s $10,000 proposed bet with Rick Perry at a debate.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.