A spokesman for Barack Obama's campaign said earlier this week that the attacks on Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital were just beginning. Pundits have scoffed at both Obama's Bain Capital ad and Mitt Romney's counterattack last week, over Obama's loan guarantees to the now-bankrupt Solyndra. But the talking heads are missing the important distinction between tide and undertow in presidential politics.
While tide issues ultimately determine the contest (John F. Kennedy's "Let's get America moving again" and Ronald Reagan's "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"), undertow issues often undermine an opponent's footing (Kennedy's use of the "missile gap" against Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush's triple assault on Michael Dukakis over the Pledge of Allegiance, the American Civil Liberties Union and Willie Horton).
In presidential politics, summers are about the undertow. Fall is governed by the tides.
Both Bain and Solyndra are undertow issues. The more the spotlight hits Bain, the worse it could get for Romney. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that voters have a negative reaction to Bain of 19 percent, compared to 9 percent positive. If this 2 to 1 negative ratio holds as more voters form opinions on Bain, Romney will be weakened.
For its part, the Romney campaign is playing on the public's clear mistrust of government spending in attacking what it calls the political awarding of federal tax credits to Solyndra under the green jobs initiative.
The real potency of Bain and Solyndra lies at the intersection of several factors. For one, Romney doesn't like to focus on his time as governor of Massachusetts; the state ranked 47 out of 50 on job creation during his governorship. Consequently, Romney highlights his private sector experience rather than his gubernatorial record. He also wants this election to be a referendum on the economy. The most recent employment report, showing a third month of sharply declining job growth, eases Romney's task.
Finally, polling data show that voters see Romney as better equipped than Obama to handle the economy, largely because of his success at Bain.
If the presumption of competence for Romney on the economy is undermined by attacks on Bain, Obama may be able to control the election's narrative. But if the perception of Obama squandering stimulus dollars takes hold, coupled with the fitful recovery, Romney's Reaganesque refrain on the economy can take Obama down.
Meanwhile, Obama must stop the bleeding among blue-collar white voters. Conservative operatives have effectively hammered Obama for years among this group: with the birther issue, with accusations of appeasement on terrorism, and now with probable attacks over his support of gay marriage. If voters no longer see Romney's Bain experience as producing jobs, Bain becomes a clear antidote to Obama's political adhesions among blue collar whites, in that crucial cluster of swing Midwestern states.
Many economists portray Bain-style private equity as a positive force, citing the doctrine of "creative destruction." But to blue-collar white voters, Bain's impact could appear more destructive, on pensions and jobs, than creative.
The tide issue for the fall will inevitably be the economy. Swing voters have consistently wanted short-term job stimulation, tied to long-term deficit reduction -- ideas embodied in the Bowles-Simpson plan.
Obama commissioned Bowles-Simpson, yet he has remained aloof from its prescriptions. Romney won't embrace any revenue increases -- even if spending cuts are tied to greater revenue from tax reform in a 4-1 ratio, as the plan recommends.
Democrats should hope that the Obama campaign effectively engages on Bain this summer, so that the tides of fall see the president embracing Bowles-Simpson as a governing mandate. If not, the flickering jobs picture could well leave Romney the victor.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany.