Mitt Romney’s private-equity background is threatening to overshadow the policies he is pitching to voters, complicating the Republican’s efforts to present himself as a positive alternative to President Barack Obama.
That challenge was on display yesterday as Romney rolled out his vision for overhauling the public education system in a Washington speech -- the first of a series of weekly policy addresses his campaign has planned -- only to see his message muffled by continued questions about his role as head of the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC.
In an interview with Time magazine, Romney defended his work as founder and chief executive officer of the company, giving his most extensive response to Democratic attacks that have dominated the political conversation for more than a week.
“The fact is that I spent 25 years in the private sector, and that obviously teaches you something that you don’t learn if you haven’t spent any time in the private sector,” the presumptive presidential nominee said. “Someone who spent their career in the economy is more suited to help fix the economy than someone who spent his life in politics and as a community organizer.”
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign has struggled to find a consistent line of defense as criticism of his 15-year tenure at Bain Capital has intensified. His aides and supporters have vacillated among depictions of the Democrats’ barrage as an assault on free enterprise, an attempt to divide the nation, a character assassination and a distraction.
Senior strategist Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters yesterday that the campaign welcomes the attacks, saying the topic underscores its message that on economic issues, Obama has failed.
“We like the fact that the discussion is centered on jobs and the economy,” he told reporters on a conference call. “We’re happy to compare Governor Romney’s record of success both at the statehouse in Massachusetts and as a businessman for 25 years in the private sector with the lack of real-world economic experience of President Obama,” he said.
The lack of cohesion in Romney’s message illustrates the task he faces as he seeks to reintroduce himself to general-election voters after the party’s primaries and avoid having his image tarnished by the Obama campaign before he can make his case to independent voters and disaffected Democrats.
Seeking to drive a more positive message for voters just now tuning into the Nov. 6 contest, Romney and his team are rolling out weekly policy speeches on a variety of topics, such as education and energy. The initiative is designed to draw contrasts with Obama and frame the general-election policy debates.
To highlight his education plans, Romney met today with Philadelphia education advocates at a majority African-American charter school in West Philadelphia.
“The gap of achievement, I believe, is the civil rights issue of our time,” he said. “We have an education crisis.”
After greeting administrators, Romney toured the school, shaking hands with a classroom of third graders and helping a group of sixth-grade girls with an English assignment.
From there, it was upstairs to the music room, where Romney stood as teachers danced and a choir class serenaded him.
“Good to meet you guys,” he said as he left the room. “Now and again if you watch the news you’ll see me. I’m sorry about that.”
‘Talk About Education’
His visit, the first of his campaign to an impoverished urban area, was met with protests and criticism.
“I don’t know why this guy’s here,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat. He “has suddenly somehow found West Philadelphia, somehow now wants to talk about education.”
In yesterday’s address at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Romney proposed steps to overhaul the public education system that could reignite the debate over school choice.
The proposals would create a voucher-like system to provide federal funding so that low-income and disabled students can attend charter schools, private institutions and public schools outside their districts.
“I don’t like the direction of American education, and as president, I will do everything in my power to get education on track for the kids of this great land,” Romney told a gathering of Hispanic business owners.
‘Champion’ of Reform
Romney blamed Obama and teachers’ unions for what he described as the “third world” state of American education.
“President Obama has made his choice, and I have made mine: As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won’t let any special interest get in the way,” he said. “We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids.”
While the Obama administration opposes vouchers -- using tax money to fund attendance at private schools -- the president has been an advocate of charter schools, one of the elements of the school-choice movement.
Expanding vouchers, said James Kvaal, policy director for the Obama campaign, would “do nothing for the vast majority of students that are left behind in public schools.”
Romney also urged government to remove barriers to expanding online education.
The Obama administration has promoted increased regulation of for-profit colleges because of concern about their educational outcomes and federal student-loan default rates. Much of that growth has come from the online offerings of these institutions, including Apollo Group Inc.’s University of Phoenix, the biggest online college chain.
Romney has consulted outside advisers with ties to for-profit and online education, including Nina Rees, senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Knowledge Universe, a company controlled by financier Michael Milken and his brother, Lowell. Knowledge Universe is an investor in K12 Inc., the largest U.S. operator of online charter schools.
Rod Paige, a former secretary of education and also a Romney adviser, and William Hansen, a former assistant secretary of education, founded Chartwell Education Group LLC, the consulting firm that lobbied for Apollo Group.
Those new measures competed for attention with the questions about Romney’s record at Bain and job losses at companies controlled by the firm.
Obama defended as “fair game” his campaign’s attacks on Romney’s role at Bain. “If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about,” Obama said during a May 21 news conference in Chicago.
In the interview with Time, Romney sidestepped a question about whether he welcomed the debate about his career at Bain, which he has held out as his main qualification for the presidency.
“Well, of course I’d like to also focus on his record,” Romney said of Obama. “The American people are interested in not so much in the history of where I was at Bain Capital, or that I have understanding of the private sector, but instead, has the president made things better for the American people?”
Romney pressed his argument that his Bain experience grounded his run for the presidency, saying it gave him concrete perspectives on how government actions can impede private business. He cited Bain’s investment with the Indiana-based company Steel Dynamics, which he said was the kind of enterprise heavily dependent on energy prices that have been inflated by Obama’s policies.
Impact on Jobs
“I understand the impact of those kinds of factors on job creation,” Romney told Time. “The reason you’re seeing, across the country, people saying they’d like to try someone new is because they believe this president -- while he may be a nice guy -- is simply not up to the task of helping guide a economy.”
Bain, in an e-mailed statement earlier this week, said revenue increased in 80 percent of the more than 350 companies in which the firm invested.