A woman in a campaign ad for President Obama describes the loss of her job in Marion, Ind., as if it happened yesterday, even though it occured almost 20 years ago, when Bain Capital — which Mitt Romney co-founded in 1984 — took over the paper-products company that had employed her. “I had my electricity turned off, and my heat turned off,” she says. “They threatened to take my car. I was scared.”
It doesn’t matter that she shared this same story with Sen. Edward Kennedy’s campaign when he faced a challenge from Romney in 1994, or that another woman interviewed for the Obama ad also appears in a 28-minute documentary funded by a pro-Newt Gingrich SuperPAC in advance of the South Carolina Republican primary in January.
The attacks have their roots in the storytelling techniques of Hollywood, tugging at emotions — and raising ire from Republicans (and a few Obama supporters) for what they see as going too far.
In an avalanche of otherwise generic 30-second ad spots, they are also what is getting talked about, for nearly two weeks now, on cable news shows.
“These attacks are very powerful because they use real people with real lives,” says Jason Killian Meath, a filmmaker and D.C. communications executive who made the Gingrich PAC’s “When Mitt Romney Came to Town” (aka “King of Bain”) that ruffled Republican feathers by seeming to give ammunition to Democrats.
Meath now fully supports Romney in the race, but he’s also unapologetic about making the documentary, which deploys the same David vs. Goliath, average people vs. fat-cat perspective perfected by Michael Moore and other filmmakers on the left. Conservatives have long sought to usurp that message, and Meath is among those on the right who have been trying to make a go of it in the traditionally progressive domain of documentaries.
Already in this election cycle, liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films has made a project about the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, a favorite target of Democrats. The DVD is called “Koch Brothers Exposed,” and provoked a lengthy rebuttal by the Kochs issued on a company website, attacking Greenwald and his employees for “stalking and harassing behavior,” among other things. But the Kochs’ written word probably didn’t convince as viscerally as Greenwald’s visuals and testimonials, which include an unemployed senior citizen buzzing the gate at one of the Kochs’ massive mansions to ask, “Why (do) they want to kill Social Security?”
Meath says that when he was asked back in January how he could do a similar provocative film with “King of Bain,” he says he responded, “?’If I don’t do it now, (Obama adviser) David Axelrod will do it, and Steven Spielberg will direct it by the time September comes around.’?”
While the Spielberg comment may be a bit of hyperbole, the Obama campaign has indeed jumped on the Bain train, even if such attacks are coming earlier than Meath expected. The filmmaker takes it as a sign that the President’s advisers are worried about poll numbers (showing the race a dead heat) and thus are anxious to potently define Romney before he can fully define himself.
Meath says he has doubts that the “King of Bain” examples of job loss some 20 years ago are as credible when being borrowed by the Obama campaign. “It is a little like getting dieting tips from Jabba the Hut,” he says.
Still, he admits Romney needs a “forceful answer” to explain his Bain years, (in which the company in certain instances bought out businesses and made them leaner by laying off staff) to “take what he learned in business and apply it to real Americans.”
There’s certainly an irony to a SuperPAC, bankrolled by billionaires, making a mark with a documentary like “King of Bain,” which trades in the emotions of laid-off workers, one of whom says of Romney, “He didn’t out look for us little peons, anyway.”
When Meath turned the camera on, the subjects told their stories with little if any reportorial prodding. Meath says that there was “little or no manipulation required” when he interviewed those who say they felt layoff pain. “These people convey, remarkably well, their message, because they have lived it,” he says.
As searing as their testimonials were, Meath says he was hoping the silver lining in the film for Romney would be to prepare him for the attacks to come.
“The question is how Romney comes out now and shows, with a little bit of compassion … what in his background qualifies him to make things better,” Meath says. “He must frame his experience in a way that satisfies what these people are arguing he can’t do, he needs to make the case for what he can do.”
He adds, “His standard response has been ‘Don’t attack me because it is an attack on free enterprise. But you need to explain how free enterprise doesn’t just benefit Romney, but how it benefits them.”
The caveat to all this is that it’s still early in the campaign, and, judging by the coverage and words of pundits, the Bain spots have garnered not nearly as much attention as the strategy behind them. Moreover, the ferocity of the Obama attack has made some of his supporters, like Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, wince.
The Romney campaign is anxious to paint the attack as one on business, and claims it will ultimately backfire, and even turn off some of Obama’s donors. And the President’s high-profile supporters, including those in Hollywood, are bound to be scrutinized for any sign of hypocrisy against the background of a populist message of fairness between haves and have nots: On a junket for “Men in Black 3,” for instance, Will Smith got asked about his views on taxes.
Eventually, the noise will give way to clarity, Meath says.
“There’s a question that if you release a film that is critical in any way about business, you are going to turn off businessmen,” Meath says. “But this has to do less with business and private equity in general, and it goes to a core argument of how you create jobs in America.”
For documentary filmmakers, you do that by having an election.