the national circus

Frank Rich on the National Circus: Booker, Bain, and Bipartisan Narcissism

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R), speaks with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo (L), and Newark Mayor Cory Booker on March 15, 2012 at City Hall in Newark, New Jersey. Cameron visited Newark on the third and final day of his visit to the United States.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

As everyone now knows, Newark Mayor Cory Booker broke rank on Meet the Press last Sunday, saying that the Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s Bain record were a “nauseating” distraction from the real issues. (Booker did not specify what those “real issues” were.) Why’d he do that?
I hope no one is nauseated if I suggest that this was idle self-promotion on Booker’s part. His message was: I am the reasonable, above-the-fray, bipartisan statesman who will deign to serve as the adult in the room while the two presidential campaigns throw dirt at each other like kids in a sandbox. Booker is a smart and capable leader but I fear he may have spent too many mornings drinking the “Why can’t we just all get along?” Kool-Aid (or should I say Starbucks?) at Morning Joe. To my ear, this seemed more about his own narcissism than about Obama, Romney, or the country. It was equally embarrassing, if not exactly nauseating, to watch him back down on his Twitter feed and in a YouTube video that left you wondering if he had the courage of any of his convictions or was ready for prime time on the national stage. 

Obama quickly rebuffed Booker, saying that the Bain attacks were very much what the campaign was about. Is he going to keep hammering on this until election day?
I was heartened that Obama didn’t run away from his point, which is not to attack business in general or the private equity business in particular, but to go after Romney’s own record — the main record Romney is running on, which is his career at Bain. Romney has steadily misrepresented that history in his effort to position himself as a Mr. Fix-it for the economy and a brilliant exemplar of job creation in the private sector. Job creation was not Romney’s mission at Bain, as Obama has pointed out. And as if to inadvertently prove Obama’s point, the Romney campaign has from the start given wildly varying and highly suspicious figures of how many jobs he “created” at Bain — it’s been as high as 100,000 and as low as unspecified “thousands.” (Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts, which ranked 47th in the country in job creation on his watch, was arguably even worse.) So why shouldn’t Obama go after Romney’s loosey-goosey specifics? The Bain ad that so “nauseated” Booker — in which actual downsized workers, not actors playing them, describe their experience — was directly patterned on those produced by Bob Shrum and Tad Devine for Ted Kennedy in the 1994 senatorial race where he clobbered Romney by 17 percentage points. Romney didn’t know how to answer those ads then and still doesn’t.

Meet the Press host David Gregory very much seconded Booker’s discomfort, grinning from ear to ear as he said, “this is the difference between Washington figures and local leaders like yourself who are trying to grow the economy.” Revealing window into the Beltway consensus? Or good point?
A non sequitur, really. If the point was that only local leaders understand the positive role of private equity (at its most effective) in growing businesses, that’s ridiculous. Obama — whose 2008 campaign raised $3.5 million from private equity and whose 2012 campaign continues to seek such contributions — agrees with Booker on this. (Booker is also a recipient of private equity contributions, including from Bain hands.) Also in agreement, presumably, are the major public employees unions, whose pension plans have invested $220 billion in private equity as of late last year, according to one recent accounting. A better discussion would be to press both Obama and Romney on what they intend to do about the new and chilling fissures in our financial infrastructure revealed by the gargantuan JPMorgan Chase gambling loss, and the myriad unanswered questions now arising about Morgan Stanley, Goldman, Nasdaq, and other parties to the Facebook IPO.

In developments not much on the Beltway radar, Obama lost 42 percent of the primary vote in Arkansas to John Wolfe, a Tennessee lawyer, and perhaps even more revealing, 42 percent to the “uncommitted” in Kentucky yesterday. What are we to make of those results?
Not a lot. Meaningless primaries with tiny turnouts in states that are not in play in a presidential election. It is not news that the GOP owns white men in the South or that some of them would protest Obama in a Democratic primary (as did those who voted for a white prison inmate rather than Obama in the recent West Virginia Democratic primary). The pre-November 6 elections to watch remain the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin (June 5) and the Tea Party primary challenge to the conservative lion Orrin Hatch in the Republican senatorial primary in Utah (June 26).  

Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS launched an “issues” ad about joblessness and economic fears that was noticeably more muted than the discarded Jeremiah Wright commercial we read about last week. Is Obama susceptible to this more “mature” line of attack?
It didn’t seem like a terribly effective ad, but it is fascinating nonetheless. It proves that Rove & company are looking at polls that have made them fearful of a backlash among independents if they viciously attack the personally popular Obama. I mean, let’s face it, Crossroads GPS is not running a kinder, gentler ad because it believes in the form. (And indeed, the ad itself indicates they have no particular skill in this genre either.)

What do you make of the ad’s name, “Basketball?”
Nothing. Though the ad invokes “basketball,” it’s not in reference to Obama, whose basketball playing has sometimes been disparaged by the right in a racially inflected manner. This ad, at least, is not about race. It is entirely about furthering the GOP case that the president has made the economy worse. It did not help the Republicans’ argument, however, that Bloomberg News reported this week that in five of eight up-for-grabs states that flipped from Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008 unemployment is now lower than the national 8.1 percent rate, including Ohio (now at 7.4 percent) and Virginia (5.6 percent). 

Another Bush-era figure, Colin Powell, played hard to get on the Today show, telling Matt Lauer that although he thought Obama “stabilized the financial system” and was a good commander-in-chief, he wasn’t ready to endorse him yet. Does anyone care about Colin Powell anymore?
As a Bush cabinet member, Powell’s endorsement was a very big deal in 2008, particularly since Obama was running against a military hero, McCain. This year, its impact is probably minimal except on the Sunday shows that will debate the latest round of Powell playing Hamlet from now until he does (or doesn’t) make his stand. Given that Powell is on a book tour, his favorite forum for vacillation (witness his long-running tease about a potential presidential run in 1996), this could be a minor, if irritating, sideshow for some time.

Former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail in the case involving the suicide of his gay freshman-year roommate Tyler Clementi. Is this just a tragic, isolated story? Or has anything about the case been indicative of where we are in America on gay civil rights?
This case was important for several reasons. First, it put a spotlight on the bullying of gay, lesbian, and transgendered youth, bringing to national attention all too many cases, many of them ending in suicide, that had been previously ignored. So far from being an isolated story, it illuminated the reality that such tragedies are, sad to say, anything but rare. Second, it mobilized national leaders gay and straight to address the issue as the crisis it is.  (Though Republican politicians were mostly AWOL from Dan Savage’s otherwise universally embraced “It Gets Better” campaign.) Third, the lenient sentencing of Ravi, while satisfying almost no one, did stimulate an important and nuanced debate, including among gay leaders and writers, as to whether a maximum penalty for this one seemingly unrepentant bully would make anything better. The answer, I think, is no. If you need further proof of how far we have to go, look no farther than the chuckles that accompanied Mitt Romney’s unconvincing denial of any memory of the high school bullying incident in which he was a prime mover.

Booker, Bain, and Bipartisan Narcissism