Bill Clinton defends Mitt Romney's time at Bain: Does that help Obama?

Former President Bill Clinton's praise of MItt Romney's business career seemed to deliberately undercut the Obama campaign's attacks. So why did he do it?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Former President Bill Clinton answers questions during an onstage interview at the Peterson Foundation 2012 Fiscal Summit in Washington on May 15. The former president defended Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital on CNN Thursday night.

Why did Bill Clinton do it? We're referring, of course, to the former president's comments on CNN Thursday night, when he essentially cut the legs out from under the Obama campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital.

Here's what Mr. Clinton said, vis-a-vis Mr. Romney's career at Bain: “I don’t think we ought to get in a position where we say this is bad work. This is good work."

And he went on: “There’s no question that in terms of getting up and going to the office and, you know, basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”

Now, we're sure there are all kinds of Machiavellian theories floating around about how Bill may be intentionally sabotaging President Obama in order to set Hillary up for a run in 2016. But we don't actually buy that.

Others suggest the former president simply misspoke. But we don't buy that either.

Here's the thing: Clinton's comments weren't just "off message." They were a declaration of war on the message. They underscore a fundamental split within the Democratic Party that's less about Romney's record at Bain than it is about whether the party as a whole is perceived as a friend or foe of Wall Street and the world of business and high finance.

Remember, Clinton went to great lengths as president to make the Democratic Party appear more pro-business than it had in decades – supporting free trade, ending "welfare as we know it," and explicitly courting more affluent supporters, particularly on Wall Street.  

Since then, when Democratic candidates have seemed to push the party back toward a more explicit economic populism, or appeared to demonize big business, Clinton has often signaled his disapproval. After Al Gore ran on the slogan "the people versus the powerful" in 2000 and lost (though barely), Clinton later commented that he thought Gore's message hadn't worked. 

Obama's relationship with Wall Street and the business community has undergone a notable shift between this campaign and the last, and the president's message has taken on a more stridently populist tone. While the last Obama campaign was about creating a new, post-partisan era of government, this one has centered on economic fairness, highlighting inequities in the tax code, and the need for regulations and other policies that protect the little guy. Over the past four years, many business leaders have bristled at what they perceive as unfair attacks coming from the president. And campaign contributions from Wall Street have fallen off precipitously for Obama.

Clinton's defense of Romney – or rather, his implied criticism of Obama's criticism of Romney – may seem like a slap in the face. But if Clinton truly believes that economic populism is a losing strategy for Democrats, his comments may actually have been an effort, in his view, to save the Obama campaign from itself. By undercutting so publicly the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney's career, Clinton may well have permanently – and, yes, somewhat humiliatingly – eliminated that line of argument from the campaign's arsenal. And we'd wager he thinks he was doing them a favor.

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