As the GOP presidential candidates stepped up their attacks over the past few days on Mitt Romney’s private equity career at Bain Capital, a new meme quickly emerged in the press: Romney was being “Swift-Boated.”
“Gingrich Swift Boats Romney,” wrote New York magazine. “Is Gingrich swift-boating Romney?” asked MSNBC’s Morning Joe. National Review coined a new phrase: “Romney-Boating.”
It’s an absurd comparison. Criticism of Romney’s business career is nothing like the attacks made by the Orwellian-named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against John Kerry’s combat record in Vietnam. The entire Swift Boat campaign against Kerry was a monstrous lie. The scrutiny of Romney’s Bain tenure, on the other hand, is grounded in the truth.
The media’s Romney-Kerry comparison is based on a new documentary produced by an ex-Romney staffer and released by a Gingrich-aligned Super PAC. I haven’t seen the entire twenty-seven-minute film (only a Gingrich Super PAC would release such a long-winded attack documentary), just the trailer. While it’s certainly propagandistic, hyperbolic and partisan, the central premise of the film is rooted in reporting done by the likes of Reuters, Bloomberg News, Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and many other large mainstream publications. These reports found that Bain, under Romney’s leadership, closed plants, downsized companies and outsourced jobs in order to maximize profits for the consulting firm and its shareholders.
Will the film tell the full story about Bain Capital? Doubtful. There’s more gray than black and white to most stories. Bain is a very good at what it does. But Romney did profit, at times, from other people’s misery. The Wall Street Journal found that 22 percent of the companies Bain invested with during Romney’s tenure “either filed for bankruptcy reorganization or closed their doors by the end of the eighth year after Bain first invested, sometimes with substantial job losses.” To suggest precisely that is not “Swift Boating.” It’s the truth.
Moreover, Romney has left himself open to attacks on this front by consistently exaggerating his business record, first claiming he created 10,000 jobs at Bain while running against Ted Kennedy in 1994 and now alleging he created 100,000 net jobs at the company during his tenure, which fact-checkers at the Washington Post, the New York Times and AP have debunked. The person guiltiest of distorting Romney’s record is Romney himself
The Swift Boat campaign against Kerry was far more odious than the Bain-related critique of Romney. Let’s remember that the Swift Boat vets said that John Kerry did not earn his Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, had made "phony war crimes charges…exaggerated claims about his own service in Vietnam…and deliberate misrepresentations of the nature and effectiveness of Swift boat operations”—all of which was completely untrue. As the LA Times wrote, “These charges against John Kerry are false."
In 2004, much of the media failed to clearly denounce the Swift Boat ads. Today, the danger is that they’ll draw a false equivalence between the outrageous attacks on Kerry’s service and legitimate questions about Romney’s business career.