Mitt Romney quickly established a knee-jerk “I know you are, but what am I?” response to Democratic attacks in the first days of the general election, recycling attacks against his own campaign to paint his opponent as a flip-flopping, Harvard-educated, rich guy who wants to end Medicare. As it turns out, it’s a strategy he’s used to success before.
Back in 2002, Romney’s gubernatorial opponent, Shannon O’Brien, with the help of union allies, accused Romney of profiting off layoffs at companies bought by Bain Capital. Democrats were confident it would be an effective attack — after all, Bain’s layoffs were widely credited with helping derail Romney’s 1994 Senate run. Romney’s response this time, however, was devastatingly clever: Accuse the Democratic ticket of — you guessed it — profiting from Bain’s layoffs.
From the Boston Herald’s 2002 account:
Republican Mitt Romney tried to mute attacks on his corporate past yesterday with scathing new charges that the deals being used to taint him were financed in part by the Democrats’ own nominee for lieutenant governor.
Romney’s campaign told the Herald that Democrat Chris Gabrieli’s venture-capital firm and its “parent” company invested heavily in Bain Capital dating back to 1987. The campaign charged that Gabrieli himself appeared at Bain last year for a negotiating meeting before the companies invested $55 million in Bain.
The ties, Romney says, link Gabrieli and gubernatorial nominee Shannon O’Brien with Indiana’s Ampad and GS Technologies steel plant in Kansas City, both featured in attack ads against Romney.
“While Mitt was saving the Olympics and these layoffs were taking place, Chris Gabrieli was visiting Bain Capital performing due diligence for Bessemer Trust, his parent company, which then put tens of millions of dollars into Bain,” said Romney deputy campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom. “It was Bessemer money, through Bain, that funded the acquisition of Ampad and the acquisition of GST Steel … Chris Gabrieli is a hypocrite and Shannon O’Brien is a liar.”
Gabrieli wouldn’t deny the meeting took place but said he had nothing to do with the companies being highlighted in O’Brien’s ads.
“Mitt Romney continues to take no responsibility for his actions and the profits he made at Ampad, Damon (Corp.) and other companies,” Gabrieli said. “I had nothing to do with any of those companies, ever … Mitt Romney will say anything to get elected.”
It was a slick tactic that simultaneously distanced Romney, Bain’s CEO until 2001, from the firings while accusing Gabrieli of having closer connections to the layoffs himself. In an additional ju-jitsu move, Romney accused Democrats and labor unions of “exploiting” workers by highlighting their criticisms of Bain Capital’s management.
“She is using and exploiting their sorrow and their grief,” Romney told the Herald at the time.
Democrats have been holding off on Bain attacks for now, though voters got a preview of the inevitable confrontation when Republican candidates jumped the gun and brought the layoffs issue up in the primaries. Don’t be surprised to see Romney’s campaign try to muddy the waters with a similar approach when Bain comes back.
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.