Week In News: The 'Swiftboating' Of Mitt Romney

The Mitt Romney campaign has been busy this week fending off attacks about Romney's involvement with Bain Capital after he claims to have ceased dealing with the company's day-to-day operations. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about how this episode reminds him of the "Swiftboat" attacks against Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

MITT ROMNEY: I had no role whatsoever in the management of Bain Capital after February of 1999.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think most Americans figure if you're the chairman, CEO and president of a company, that you are responsible for what that company does.

ROMNEY: That's ridiculous and disturbing to come from their campaign, and beneath the dignity of the president.

RAZ: That's President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in dueling interviews with ABC News and WJLA yesterday. At issue - the question of when Romney left Bain Capital, and why he was still listed as CEO on federal filings after he says he left the company. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us now, as he does most Saturdays. Jim, hello.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Guy.

RAZ: So Jim, Mitt Romney has, all along, said - you know - he left Bain in 1999. But as late as 2001, he's still - his name still appears on SEC documents as the chairman. Of course, the Obama campaign has jumped on this. They're trying to rewrite the narrative of Romney's time as a businessman, and it seems to have thrown Romney off-kilter a bit.

FALLOWS: It has. And I think it's worth focusing on why this is such a potential problem for the Romney campaign. The entire reason behind his campaign - through the last year, in the Republican primaries, and now in the next four months, in the general election - is that America has business problems, he is a businessman; therefore, he's the right person for the job.

And what the Obama campaign is doing on the basis of this Bain imbroglio, is something similar to what George W. Bush was doing to John Kerry back in 2004, in the episode known as swiftboating. And by that, I mean making something that a candidate had assumed to be his strength - which in John Kerry's case, was his military background - into a weakness.

RAZ: And so if the Obama campaign can make Mitt Romney's business background not the presumed basis of his campaign but instead, a source of controversy, a source of potential weakness for him, that really does make problems in the campaign for the Romney team.

So if the Obama campaign is swiftboating, as you say, Mitt Romney - I mean, one of the criticisms of John Kerry was that he didn't respond to this back in 2004. And Romney is - only started to respond to it.

FALLOWS: Exactly. And I should make clear, in saying swiftboating, I'm not asserting that these are false accusations. I'm just saying, they have this jujitsu effect. And it's actually surprising the Romney team is not better prepared for them than it is - number one, because they've had the last eight years since the John Kerry episode; number two, over the last year, this is what Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and others were using as their angle of attack on Mitt Romney's business background, too.

RAZ: But some of the truth- squadding on this, Jim, from factcheck.org and Fortune magazine, the Washington Post - they've essentially said this whole attack on Romney is much ado about nothing.

FALLOWS: I saw those accounts and read them a little bit differently. And they're saying that even though Romney, on forms submitted in 2001 or 2002, was listed as the CEO, the president, the sole shareholder, etc., of these businesses, it wasn't reasonable to infer that he had any connection with them. I think that does place the argument on the Obama team's court. And they can say, to most people - look, if you're the president, the CEO or the sole shareholder, it's reasonable to assume that you would have some responsibility for an enterprise.

RAZ: What is the big deal, though, if he was, ostensibly, the figurehead until 2001?

FALLOWS: There is a technical argument about exactly which years the Bain company was doing most of its outsourcing. To me, that's the lesser point. I think most voters are not going to focus on that. I think the larger point is that it does - again, strangely - make the part of Mitt Romney's background that was to have been his burnished source of pride, and his main job recommendation for the task of being president, something he's having to defend, explain and make apologies for - which is not what he wants to be doing four months before the election.

RAZ: That's James Fallows, the national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can find his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy.

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