Unanswered questions in the Romney/Bain controversy

Don't look to fact-checkers for resolution

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Fact-checkers have played a key role in the controversy over Mitt Romney’s role in outsourcing at Bain Capital, but the way the debate has played out reveals the limitations of the genre.

First, fact-checks sometimes help create controversies that paradoxically increase the attention paid to misleading charges. For this reason, political consultants will sometimes intentionally make misleading claims in order to increase the amount of “earned media” their ads will attract. While we can’t know the intentions of the President or his campaign team, their ads charging Romney with outsourcing at Bain Capital have been shown to be misleading by Factcheck.org and The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, but the debate over the issue has come to dominate the presidential race.

Nonetheless, reporting and commentary on the issue has been more substantive and nuanced than the “he said,” “she said” reporting and armchair punditry that dominated early coverage of Obama’s ads. In particular, reporters are starting to unpack what the New York Times called the “convoluted timeline” of Romney’s departure from Bain, which has been described by Romney, Bain, or Romney surrogates in varying and often contradictory ways. The focus of the coverage has thus shifted from the (in)accuracy of President Obama’s ads attacking Romney to the presumptive GOP nominee’s lack of consistency in describing his role at Bain in the 1999-2002 period.

The media pivot to a focus on Romney was most explicit in a report today by Callum Borchers, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, which is widely read in southern New Hampshire. (The Globe has covered Romney extensively since his days as the governor of the state.) Borchers describes the statement by Romney and his staff that the former Bain Capital CEO was not actively engaged in “day-to-day” management of the firm as a “straw-man” that is not “the real question”:

In recent days, Romney and his defenders have begun to say Romney left his “day-to-day” duties at Bain Capital when he took over the Salt Lake City Olympics in February 1999, seemingly absolving him of responsibility for any bankruptcies, layoffs or offshore outsourcing after 1999 by companies Bain had invested in.

Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, used the phrase in Sunday talk show appearances on both CNN and NBC.

In an interview Friday on CNN, Romney, himself, referred to a Bain Capital investment prospectus from 2000 that did not list him among 18 “investment professionals responsible for the day-to-day affairs” of Bain Capital funds.

But these statements address only the straw-man attack articulated by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove— “that [Romney] didn’t take a leave of absence to go run the Olympic Committee and continued to run Bain.”

However, Romney established a much stricter standard of separation when he asserted on his most recent financial disclosure form that he “has not been involved in the operations of any Bain Capital entity in any way” since he took over the Olympics.

The real question is not about whether Romney had day-to-day involvement with Bain Capital but about whether he had any involvement at all.

There is no serious debate about whether Romney took a leave of absence to run the Olympics. He did. And there is no serious debate about whether Romney continued to run the day-to-day affairs of Bain Capital. He did not.

Rove and others appear determined to pretend those debates exist because they are easily winnable.

This account ignores the role of the Obama campaign in sparking the controversy by running ads suggesting that Romney directed Bain companies to engage in outsourcing during the period in question. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait put it in a post before changing his mind about the accuracy of the ads, “Obama isn’t saying Romney’s firm shipped jobs overseas, he’s saying Romney shipped jobs overseas.” Fact-checkers and reporters thus necessarily focused on the question of Romney’s day-to-day involvement with Bain and the firms in question.

Nonetheless, Borchers’ reframing of the question echoes claims made by many liberal Romney critics and commentators, who have criticized fact-checkers while arguing that Romney remained responsible for Bain’s decisions during that period and may have dissembled about the extent of his continued involvement. Nick Baumann of Mother Jones, for instance, asks the following question of fact-checkers:

Is it possible that even without day-to-day managerial control, Mitt Romney may bear some moral or personal responsibility for the actions of Bain Capital post-1999, given that no one is disputing that he benefited financially from its actions and that his name was on the door? Is that question even fact-checkable?

The answer to the latter question, in fact, is no, which highlights the second limitation of fact-checking. Readers are often frustrated with the narrow and seemingly pedantic nature of fact-checking by watchdogs like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org, which typically focus on the specifics of a given claim rather than the larger issue or debate in question. But there’s a good reason for the narrow focus of the genre—broader questions about significance and responsibility are simply beyond their purview and cannot be answered within the realm of facts. For example, as BostInno’s Walt Frick noted in a clever “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style Romney/Bain explainer, the significance of the dispute will vary depending on your answers to a series of highly subjective questions

How relevant do you think Romney’s time at Bain Capital is to his presidential candidacy?…

Is someone responsible for the business they own, even if they’re no longer involved in decision-making?…

How worried are you about offshoring of US jobs?

There are no objective answers to these questions. The irony is that many liberals were outraged by PolitiFact’s choice of the Democratic charge that the House GOP budget would “end Medicare” as its so-called 2011 “Lie of the Year.” As Chait wrote at the time, “it’s obviously a question of interpretation, not fact.” The same principle applies to Romney’s responsibility (or lack thereof) for decisions made at Bain during the period when he was technically its owner and CEO but not involved in “day-to-day” management of the firm. Some claims are too important to check.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.