Perhaps the most striking thing about the current fight over Mitt Romney's career in private equity is how little we know about it. Romney has based his campaign on his experience in private business -- he talks about it much more than his time as governor of Massachusetts -- and yet, unlike his governorship, Romney's business experience has not been the topic of long and detailed public examination and debate.
Normally, when a candidate runs a high-profile campaign, as Romney did in the 2008 Republican presidential race, everything in his background comes out in the form of opposition research done by rival candidates. But it appears that in 2007-2008, the John McCain campaign, which delved into Romney's every flip-flop, did not delve deeply into the Bain years. McCain's aides simply could not conceive that the ins-and-outs of Romney's business career would become an issue for generally pro-business GOP voters.
"The attitude in '08 was that there wouldn't be much room in a Republican primary for those kinds of attacks," says one veteran of that race. "They [the McCain campaign] felt they had enough with the flip-flops."
Fast forward four years. Shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Winning Our Future, a pro-Newt Gingrich super-PAC, acquired a 27-minute film portraying Romney as a predatory capitalist who bought companies to strip them down, fire their workers, and take their money. But much of the film's content -- and it appears to have some serious problems -- is based on public news accounts. For the most part, it's not research from 2008 that was dusted off and made into a video.
"It astonished me," says Rick Tyler, the former Gingrich staffer who is a senior adviser at Winning Our Future. "I looked at the oppo reports. They are reams and reams thick on everything from abortion to the Boy Scouts to cap-and-trade. And there is just nothing on Bain. Romney is not running on his government record, which there is oppo research for. He's running on his business career, which there is no information on."
Tyler is obviously a partisan, but his words are a good warning to both sides in the Romney-Gingrich fight. There's no basis to reflexively defend Romney's record, because we don't know in any real detail what he did at Bain. But there's no basis to indict him, either, for the same reason.
Nevertheless, the issue has caught fire. No one has been more surprised than the people at Winning Our future, who in the days leading up to New Hampshire created intense interest in the Romney-Bain video without actually releasing it.
"We didn't run a single ad, and we didn't show anybody the movie, and you would think the underpinnings of capitalism were at risk," says Tyler. Until Thursday, when ads finally began running nationally and in South Carolina, Winning Our Future relied on news coverage, or "earned media," to bring attention to its case. "It may be the longest-running earned media ad in history," Tyler says.
Now that the movie is out, fact checkers have spotted significant problems with some of its examples of alleged Romney malfeasance. For example, Bain acquired one company featured in the film, KB Toys, after Romney left the business. Things didn't end well at KB, but it's hard to lay its problems at Romney's feet.
Still, other questions remain about Romney's career. The cases of two steel companies outlined in a recent Reuters report -- and cited repeatedly by Gingrich -- call for more investigation into Bain's and Romney's actions. But the bottom line is that Bain was a private company -- a very private company -- and the public just doesn't know much about what happened there.
How this issue plays out could be critical to Romney's future, if not in the GOP primaries, then in the general election if he is the nominee. Romney is running on his business career because a) voters are overwhelmingly concerned with the economy, and b) his career in politics is not necessarily a plus with Republican voters. Romney's two biggest political problems -- the creation of Romneycare in Massachusetts and his record of flip-flops on abortion and other issues -- stem from his years serving in, and running for, public office. Better to talk about business.
Time is running out for any Republican campaign to dig into Romney's record, even if that campaign had the resources and the inclination. But Republicans can be assured of one thing. The vastly wealthy Obama re-election apparatus is doing the oppo research from every conceivable angle. Sooner or later, we'll learn more about Romney's time at Bain.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.