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Romney needs more compassion

"They basically cut our throats.”

Those are the words of a woman from Marion, Ind., who worked for SCM, an office supply company. After SCM was bought in the early ’90s by Ampad, a firm controlled by Mitt Romney and his partners at Bain Capital, all 350 workers were laid off. Some then were offered their jobs back, but at lower wages and without benefits.

The former SCM worker appeared in a TV commercial run by Ted Kennedy in 1994, when he was defending his U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts against a strong challenge from Romney. And one thing is certain in a political season marked by uncommon uncertainty — she will return to the political spotlight if Romney wins the Republican nomination to face President Obama next fall.

In fact, viewers might not have to wait that long. After Romney suggested this week that Newt Gingrich return the money he made advising Freddie Mac, the federal housing agency, Gingrich retorted that he’d consider such a move if Romney returned his earnings from “bankrupting companies and laying off employees.”

As the Republican race speeds up, Romney’s foes are increasingly tempted to go negative. And as Newt’s comment indicates, Mitt the Heartless, Part Two, could already be in the works.

During last Saturday’s debate, Gingrich derided Romney’s frequent boast that he is not a career politician. “Let’s be candid,” snapped the former House speaker. “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”

Romney was leading that race 17 years ago well into the fall, but one reason he lost was a series of devastating ads featuring workers from SCM. We recently obtained a copy of those commercials, and make no mistake: They could be a huge problem for Romney this time around as well.

One worker says about the lost jobs: “I’d like to say to the workers of Massachusetts, if you think it can’t happen to you, think again. Because we thought it couldn’t happen here, either.” Another adds: “We had no rights anymore.”

Even more damaging are the workers who compare their distressed financial situations to Romney’s vast wealth. “He’s cut our wages to put money into his pocket,” was a typical comment. Count on Obama (or Gingrich, for that matter) to repeat some version of the question Kennedy posed in his ads: “Whose side is he on?”

The accusations of the Marion workers could get a strong boost from two factors: jobless rates are even higher today than they were in 1994, and Romney is already suffering from a campaign narrative that brands him as a man of wealth and privilege who does not have a clue about the problems of ordinary folks.

For example, during an editorial board session in Nevada last October, Romney advised: “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit bottom.” Democrats have already featured that unfortunate comment in an ad they test-marketed recently in Arizona with the tagline: “Mitt Romney’s message to Arizona? You’re on your own.”

Three years ago, Romney wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times opposing government help to the auto industry and counseled, “Let Detroit go bankrupt.” Team Obama presaged another line of attack against Mitt the Heartless when a spokesman declared: “If Mitt Romney were president, there would not be an American auto industry. Industry experts have been clear: Our auto companies would have faced liquidation if Mitt Romney had his way.”

And then there was Romney’s offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 over a dispute concerning Mitt’s health-care policy. That now looks like a big mistake. The Obama campaign has already drawn up a fake $10,000 bill featuring Romney’s picture and the slogan, “In Corporations We Trust.”

Team Romney, of course, will argue that business is business, that efficiency is the key to prosperity, that sometimes you have to cut certain jobs and salaries to save others. And that argument would probably play well at the Harvard Business School, where Romney learned his profession, or in the world of leveraged buyouts, where he made his money.

But an election is not a business school seminar, and in politics, a balance sheet is not the only measure of success. Voters want a candidate who has a heart as well as a brain; they are looking for compassion, not just calculation. And that’s why Romney has to fear the workers of Marion.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.