By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney is an impressive man but until now, we didn’t know just how impressive. According to his senior adviser, Ed Gillespie, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is a time traveler.
Gillespie made this surprise disclosure to CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday as he attempted to explain why the candidate claimed to have stepped down as chief executive of Bain Capital in 1999 but the company’s filings show him in that position through 2002.
“He took a leave of absence,” Gillespie said, “and, in fact, Candy, he ended up not going back at all, and retired retroactively to February of 1999 as a result.”
Retroactive retirement! It was a brilliant formulation, perhaps the greatest addition to the political lexicon since “no controlling legal authority.” And it raised tantalizing possibilities: If Romney can do it, perhaps others can go back in time to rearrange events.
George W. Bush could retroactively end his presidency on Sept. 1, 2008, before the financial collapse. Donald Rumsfeld could retroactively pull out of Iraq before the insurgency. President Obama could retroactively deny government funding for Solyndra.
Beyond politics, the Chicago Cubs could retroactively end their 2003 season before they squandered a three-games-to-one lead in the National League Championship Series. Investors could retroactively skip Facebook’s IPO. Kim Kardashian could retroactively undo her wedding — or, better still, we could undo the Kardashians entirely.
In practice, retroactivity is not quite so simple. If it were, Sarah Palin would still be an obscure governor, Anthony Weiner wouldn’t have had a Twitter account, and John Edwards wouldn’t have hired a campaign videographer.
More potent than retroactivity is the principle of pre-emption: Defining your opponent before he can define himself. And for once, Democrats are doing this extremely well. The Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s outsourcing, his foreign tax havens and his work at Bain are often unfair, not entirely accurate and sometimes downright mean — just as they should be.
Obama, in Cincinnati on Monday, continued to apply his boot to his opponent’s neck. “I’ve got to be honest,” he told his supporters. “Today we found out there’s a new study out by nonpartisan economists that says Governor Romney’s economic plan would, in fact, create 800,000 jobs.” The crowd was quiet, until Obama said, with a laugh: “There’s only one problem. The jobs wouldn’t be in America.”
Then the president renewed his Bain attack. “This shouldn’t be a surprise, because Governor Romney’s experience has been investing in what were called pioneers of the business of outsourcing,” he said.
The “new study out by nonpartisan economists” was an article written by an academic at Reed College in Oregon that didn’t mention Romney. It said a territorial tax system, which Romney favors, would increase jobs in low-tax countries by about 800,000 — but it also said that reducing effective tax rates, which Romney supports, would change things.
Still, if the veracity is in doubt, the political utility is not. We know the attack is working because Karl Rove says it isn’t. He called it a “big mistake” to suggest, as Obama aide Stephanie Cutter did, that Romney may have committed a felony in misleading the Securities and Exchange Commission. This, Rove told Fox News, is “gutter politics of the worst Chicago sort.”
Rove is well-qualified to weigh in on such matters, having presided over Bush’s 2004 campaign, during which opponent John Kerry was accused of lying about his war record. Some of those who funded the attacks on Kerry are now bankrolling Rove’s assaults on Obama.
This isn’t to excuse Obama for stretching the truth about Romney. But those who portrayed the president as a Muslim radical who pals around with terrorists aren’t in a good position to be complaining that Romney is being painted as a vulture capitalist.
On Tuesday, Gillespie tried, in a conference call with reporters, to redirect attention back to Obama’s “Chicago-style” crony politics. But Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times brought the questioning back to Romney’s “fine distinctions about his role at Bain.”
“Maeve, I don’t think the distinctions are that fine,” Gillespie protested. He said Romney’s campaign is “going to treat voters with more respect” than the Democrats are.
Good luck with that, Ed, but piety seldom pays. A better strategy would be for Romney to get back in the time machine and eliminate the phrase “retired retroactively” from the record. While in the past, he might also pause long enough to take his dog Seamus off the car roof.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.
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