Mitt Romney, job creator or job destroyer?

Mitt Romney has run against Democrats twice: in 1994 he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy; in 2002 he ran for Governor of Massachusetts against Shannon O’Brien. In both elections, the Democrat attacked Romney as a “job destroyer” based on his work at Bain Capital.

The tactic seemed to work in 1994, when Romney suffered a decisive defeat after polls had shown him just about even with Kennedy early in the race. In 2002, voters seemed to ignore the attack, as Romney defeated O’Brien pretty handily.

I believe that Kennedy won easily 1994 because Massachusetts voters ultimately wanted to re-elect the iconic Senator. In 2002, they wanted to elect Romney, who had become a super-star thanks to his well-publicized leadership in the staging of that year’s Winter Olympic Games. That’s probably why the Bain stuff seemed to work the first time but not the second.

This year, the presidential election is likely to turn on whether voters want to re-elect Obama. This desire, or lack thereof, will likely determine how they process dueling arguments about Romney’s work at Bain Capital.

To be sure, the Romney camp will need to counter Obama’s attacks with arguments that rise to the level of “dueling.” This, I believe, it can do. For every Bain-related company where jobs were lost, there is likely to be at least one such company where jobs were created in equal or larger numbers.

Moreover, thousands of jobs were lost following Obama’s intervention into the auto industry. Obama will counter that these cuts were designed to ensure the long-term viability of General Motors. But Romney can make the same argument about the job cuts for which he is attacked (though some did not succeed in saving the company).

The recent Obama attack portraying Romney as a job destroyer points to a steel company purchased by Bain that went out of business in 2001. The Romney camp points out that their man was no longer with Bain at that time, having left in 1999 to lead the Winter Olympics. On the other hand, in making claims about jobs “created” through Bain Capital, the Romney camp has been willing to take credit for successes experienced by companies after Romney left Bain. Depending on the facts, it may be appropriate to give Romney some credit, or to assign him some blame, for what happened at a company after he left Bain; decisions made under Romney’s watch may have strongly influenced subsequent outcomes.

Ultimately, of course, Bain was not in the business of creating or destroying job; it was in the business of maximizing financial return to investors. The policies that maximize financial return will vary from company to company. Sometimes these policies result in job creation; sometimes they entail job cuts. Sometimes, the job cuts, though they don’t “create” jobs, end up saving jobs because they help keep the company afloat.

This was the case at Bain & Company (Romney’s original employer that created Bain Capital). When it experienced a major financial crisis, Romney was called in. He laid off 260 people as part of a major restructuring. But according to the Boston Globe reporters who wrote The Real Romney, without the restructuring, the entire enterprise might well have sunk, resulting in far greater loss of jobs.

These kinds of dueling arguments may cause voters to throw up their hands and call the whole thing a wash, assuming that Romney can get his side of the story out there. If voters want to replace Obama, they are unlikely to vote for him because Bain Capital had a mixed record on “job creation.”