The best evidence right now suggests that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took a leave of absence from Bain Capital in February of 1999 to help run the Salt Lake City Olympics in Utah. During his leave of absence, Romney continued to sign documents submitted by Bain to the Securities and Exchange Commission, listed himself as the Chief Executive Officer of the company in some of those SEC filings, and reportedly took a $100,000 annual salary. There’s no evidence that Romney was involved in Bain’s day-to-day operations, but he attended board meetings for companies affiliated with Bain, and a Boston Herald report from the time he started his absence — a report touted by the Romney campaign — indicated that Romney planned to “stay on as a part-timer with Bain, providing input on investment and key personnel decisions.” But the bulk of Romney’s time after he left was spent on the Olympics, where he worked “12 hours a day, six days a week,” according to a Massachusetts state investigation. The Bain team, meanwhile, worked on transitioning Romney out of the top job and putting a new management team in place.
Romney’s campaign insists that Romney left Bain in 1999, saying that although Romney initially took a leave of absence, he later “retired retroactively.” President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, on the other hand, seems to think that questions about just exactly when Romney left Bain and what he did there are a winning issue, at least in the sense of winning the day: A morning email sent out by the Obama team proposed a slew of detailed questions about Romney’s time at Bain — and when, precisely, it ended.
There are two issues here, and neither of them matter very much. The first is whether Romney’s campaign is being truthful in insisting that he actually left in February of 1999. On the evidence, it looks like he phased full-time into Olympic work, but continued to advise his old company and take a stipend while new leadership was being selected and installed. Given Romney’s longtime prominence in the company — he split off from Bain’s consulting arm to help found the company in the mid 1980s — it does not seem unusual that he should continue to take a moderate salary (for a founding CEO who built a corporate megafortune, $100,000 is a relatively modest stipend) or provide some input on operations in the years immediately following his departure.
So Romney’s campaign is probably overstating its case when declaring that he had zero involvement with the company following his 1999 leave. That’s not a particularly attractive quality in a political candidate, but it’s hardly unprecedented. If rewriting one’s own history is a sin for a presidential candidate, then it’s one that both candidates have committed.
The reason the date fudging supposedly matters in this case is that the Obama campaign has tried to link Romney to Bain investments made after 1999 that involved offshoring. Romney’s campaign has responded by saying that the former Massachusetts cannot be held responsible for investments made after he left.
Er...so what? If Romney is linked to Bain’s offshoring, then we find out, what? That Romney was the head of a successful private equity firm that attempted to wring economic value out of failing or struggling firms — and sometimes that involved laying off workers? That the laid off workers don't like Romney or Bain? And that Democrats don't either? Anyone who dislikes Romney on these grounds already has plenty of reason to dislike him.
I don't think the Obama campaign's attacks are entirely unfair, and in general I think candidates for high office should be exposed to maximum public scrutiny, whether or not it's comfortable. Mitt Romney knew what he was signing up for when he ran for president (again), and given his own intentionally dishonest campaign attack ads, he has little room to complain about negative messaging. But this is much more of a gimmicky PR squabble than a clash of visions.
Which brings us to the second issue. In theory, the Obama campaign’s attack is tied to a larger debate about job creation: If Romney was responsible for offshoring, the argument goes, then can he really say he created jobs in the private sector? Actually, it shouldn’t make any difference: “Offshoring has no effect on native employment in the aggregate,” according to a recent paper published by the London School of Economics Center for Economic Performance. “While oﬀshore workers compete directly with natives, their employment generates productivity gains that ‘increase the size of the pie,’ leading to an overall neutral impact on native employment.” Democrats, who helped pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, should know this: Manufacturing sector job losses attributed to that agreement were offset elsewhere in the economy.
But this isn't really about jobs or the economy. It's not even really about whether Romney's campaign is telling the truth about when the candidate left Bain. It's about defining Romney as an evil capitalist villain and creating a news cycle sideshow. But it tells us almost nothing new about how either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama would govern if given the keys to the White House.