Obama's Cory Booker problem: allies undercut anti-Bain message

Cory Booker, Newark's charismatic mayor, back-tracked on his defense of Mitt Romney's company, Bain, but only part-way. Other Obama supporters are muddying his message on private equity, too.

Charles Sykes/AP
Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaks onstage at Gospelfest in Newark, N.J., earlier this month.

Over the weekend, House Speaker John Boehner colorfully called his Republican caucus “frogs in a wheelbarrow.” But President Obama has his own collection of jumpy amphibians to keep on board.

Cory Booker, the charismatic Democratic mayor of Newark, N.J., and regular Obama surrogate, went off script Sunday on “Meet the Press” when he called the tone of the presidential campaign “nauseating” – explicitly mentioning Team Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s former private equity firm, Bain Capital.

Mayor Booker – most recently famous for rescuing his neighbor from her burning house – went after Republicans, too. He disparaged the recent proposal, attributed to GOP strategists, to have an outside group attack Mr. Obama via his flame-throwing former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

But it was Booker’s defense of Bain that made headlines, reinforced by his half-hearted attempt later in the day Sunday to walk it back in a video to his social-media fan base. Still, Monday morning, the Obama campaign stuck with its anti-Bain script, launching a new line of attack via the bankruptcy tale of another Bain acquisition, the Indiana-based Ampad. In a conference call with reporters, campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt and a former Ampad employee accused Romney of  “run[ning] other businesses into the ground even while turning a profit for himself and his investors,” as Mr. LaBolt put it.

The Obama campaign also put out a six-minute video about Ampad, highlighting workers who had lost their jobs.

The response from Team Romney and the Republican Party? Press releases – and a video (see below) – that gleefully try to fan the flames of the Democrats’ mini-insurrection, focusing not only on Booker’s comments but also other Obama allies sticking up for private equity. In addition, the RNC has bought ads on Twitter to publicize Booker's comments.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday, former Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee said he would not have backed away from defending Bain if he were Booker.

“The substance of his comments on ‘Meet the Press,’ I agree with the core of it,” said Mr. Ford. “I would not have backed them out.… Private equity’s not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, private equity is a good thing in many, many instances.”

On TV last week, former Obama administration “car czar” Steve Rattner also stuck up for Bain and the world of venture capitalism, earning him regular space on Romney campaign missives.

But it was Booker’s first comment Sunday morning that really has legs.

Here’s what Booker said: "I have to just say from a very personal level, I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, it's just we're getting to a ridiculous point in America. Especially that I know I live in a state where pension funds, unions, and other people invest in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses."

Later on Sunday, in a YouTube video that was likened by some commentators to a hostage tape, Booker said that Romney’s business record was fair game in the campaign.

“Mitt Romney has made his business record a centerpiece of his campaign, he's talked about himself as a job creator, and therefore it is reasonable – and in fact I encourage it – for the Obama campaign to examine that record and to discuss it. I have no problem with that,” said Booker.

But Booker didn’t back away from his characterization of the campaign discourse at “nauseating.”

“I used the word 'nauseating' on ‘Meet the Press’ because that’s really how I feel, when I see people in my city struggling with real issues,” said Booker. “I get very upset when I see such a level of dialogue that calls us to our lowest common denominators and not the kind of things that can unify us as a nation and move us forward as a nation.”

The big question is whether any of this kerfuffle is reaching the consciousness of swing voters in key battleground states, like Ohio and Virginia. A lot of it may well be inside-the-beltway chatter in a campaign season that is still only gearing up. But for now, Obama’s anti-Bain message has some serious static.

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