Posted by: George | May 25, 2012

Is Bain Capital Fair Game?

When I was watching Morning Joe today, Joe, Mika, Willie, and a number of guests had a long discussion about President Obama’s “attack” on Bain Capital. Most of the discussion centered on the issue of whether or not this strategy is going to backfire.

I am not going to summarize the arguments on Morning Joe or talk about Cory Booker’s performance on Meet the Press, where he said, when appearing as an Obama surrogate, that we need to “stop attacking private equity.” (Not the message the Obama campaign expected from a surrogate.) I would rather look at the rhetorical strategies behind the general topic of Bain Capital.

As background, I need to briefly say something about the creep of propaganda. We could argue about the origin of modern propaganda, maybe even asserting that it goes all the way back to Plato’s attack on the Sophists, to the very origin of rhetoric itself. I don’t want to go that far back. I am only going back to the invention of the high-speed rotary press and the rise of daily newspapers at the end of the 19th century. As newspapers (more specifically, conglomerates of newspapers) became more powerful, we began to move into a media saturated culture (newspapers were soon supported by other media—radio, film, television) that made the manipulation and distortion of information more powerful. Think of Yellow Journalism.

In our media saturated culture, propaganda (or, at least, the techniques of propaganda) began to creep into more areas of our lives. Edward Bernays was a key figure in this creep. During World War I, he worked with the Committee on Public Information, which promoted support for the war effort. After the war, Bernays took the techniques he had used in war propaganda and applied them to public relations and advertising. At the same time that public relations and advertising were emerging as professions, political propaganda was developing in Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany.

Now, all political campaigns use the techniques of propaganda. And central to propaganda is this basic strategy: have a simple message and repeat it often. You can be nostalgic about the political discourse of the Lincoln-Douglas debates if you want, but we aren’t likely to see that kind of extended debate again. As our media saturated culture has progressed, time has sped up. We want simple messages.

This is Romney’s simple message: I am a successful businessman; therefore, I know how to fix the economy. He is repeating it often. (Yes, Obama will have his own simple message, which might even be a one word message like “forward.”)

Simple messages might be true or false, but they are not complete. They are truncated syllogisms, what Aristotle called enthymemes. In other words, the logical tie (the middle term) between “I am a successful businessman” and “I can fix the economy” is missing. Aristotle, the creator of Western logic, says this is fine because the listener supplies the middle term.

What Aristotle doesn’t say is that the middle term, as supplied by the listener, is usually ambiguous. With a good enthymeme, we sense the middle term is there, we believe it is there, we may even want it to be there, so the argument works. At least, as long as we don’t think about it too much, which we usually don’t. Unless someone makes us think about it, and then we move from clarity to confusion.

Any area of ambiguity, as Kenneth Burke says, is the site where rhetoric does its work. Romney wants the middle term to remain unstated so that his message remains simple. Obama wants to introduce ambiguity into the middle term so that Romney’s message becomes cloudy, which means it will ultimately be less persuasive.

So, Obama is not really attacking Bain Capital or private equity. He is attacking the middle term of Romney’s simple message. In other words, he wants the American public to think about the connection between Romney’s business career and (1) whether or not this career has truly prepared him to fix the economy, or (2) what the “character” of Romney’s career at Bain Capital suggests about the “character” of a Romney presidency.

Obama has asked why Romney is talking about his time at Bain Capital but not his time as governor of Massachusetts. This is, in part, an attempt to tie Romney, who wants to run as a conservative, to his time as governor of a liberal state. It is also an attack on the middle term by essentially redirecting the simple message. If Romney’s time as a business executive prepared him to be a political executive, then we will see evidence of that in his time as governor of Massachusetts, where he introduced healthcare, the model for Obamacare.

Obama has also attacked the “character” of Romney’s time at Bain Capital by portraying the company as an example of predatory capitalism. Romney and Bain Capital, the argument goes, looked for short-term profits, destroyed companies, fired workers, etc. This is, therefore, the kind of America you will get with Romney.

To defend himself (and keep his simple message simple), Romney will need to be either abstract or simple. He is being abstract when he accuses Obama of being anti-business and anti-capitalism. (Romney has used both terms. “Anti-business” is going to work better than “anti-capitalism” because “capitalism” is going to bring with it the hint of abuses in capitalism at a time when the American people are concerned about how the One Percent got to be the One Percent.) Romney is keeping his simple message simple when he counters with a few simple statistics. He has said that 80 percent of Bain Capital’s businesses succeeded; only 5 percent ended in bankruptcy.

If Romney ever tries to counter Obama’s attack on the middle term of his simple message with a long discussion of what he did at Bain Capital or a lot of facts, his simple message will become complex and he will have lost.

So, should Obama attack Bain Capital? Not really the right question. He has no choice. The right question is, “How should he attack Bain Capital?” The answer is he needs to (1) state the unstated middle term in a way that pushes Romney’s message in a new direction, or (2) introduce information into the middle term that makes us question or rethink the connection between Romney’s time at Bain Capital and what he would do as president.

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