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The Swissboating of Mitt Romney

After all the Republicans have done to coarsen the political rhetoric, they have little or no credibility to complain about negative campaign attacks now. The Republican attack machine has come back to haunt itself.
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Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has hit a rough patch. Just listen to what critics have been saying about him.

Romney is a "vulture capitalist" who "killed jobs" just to make more money for himself and his company, according to one critic. "They sit there and wait until they see a distressed company and they swoop in and pick the carcass clean and then fly away," he added.

A second critic called Romney a "liar" who is "not telling the American people the truth" in his campaign. "I don't know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account," he said.

A third critic labeled Romney a "chameleon" who has been "on both sides" of several issues and "very inconsistent" in his beliefs.

And yet a fourth critic said Romney "will say what he needs to say to win the election that's before him. And if he has to say something different because it's a different election and a different group of voters, he's willing to say that too."

And that's just what Romney's fellow Republicans have said about him this year.

Remember, it was Rick Perry who called Romney a "vulture capitalist," Newt Gingrich who called him a "liar" and criticized his Swiss bank account, Michele Bachmann who called him a "chameleon," and Rick Santorum who said Romney was the "worst candidate" to run against Barack Obama because of his inconsistent positions.

Even Romney's newest running mate trial balloon, Tim Pawlenty, attacked the former Massachusetts governor last year for his inconsistency on health care reform, which he clevely labeled "Obamneycare."

So when Republicans complain about Democratic attacks on Romney today, they need only remember what they themselves said about Romney just a few months ago.

No, this is not the Swiftboating of Mitt Romney, as some have charged. This is more like "Swissboating," in which a political party attacks itself from within, thus giving fodder for its opponents.

Like its 2004 predecessor, Swissboating uses a candidate's perceived strength -- John Kerry's military experience or Mitt Romney's business experience -- against him. But unlike the attacks on John Kerry, Swissboating is based on truthful information that uses a candidate's background to explore relevant policy positions.

Since Mitt Romney is running on his record as a successful businessman, it's perfectly legitimate to ask questions about his business. That's why the Obama campaign should continue to press two important lines of questions that remain unanswered.

First, there are many unanswered questions about Bain. Why did Mitt Romney sign documents listing himself as CEO, owner, and managing director of Bain Capital after 1999 if he had no active involvement in the company? Why did Romney receive a six-figure salary from Bain if he wasn't doing anything at the company? And did investors place money in Bain Capital firms based on its SEC representations that Romney was still CEO?

Second, there are unanswered questions about Romney's own investments. Why did Romney put millions of dollars into a Swiss bank account? Why did he transfer the ownership of a shell company in Bermuda to his wife the day before he was sworn in as governor? Why did he invest in offshore tax havens such as the Cayman Islands? And what else is there that we don't know about his finances because Romney won't follow his own father's example and release his tax returns from previous years?

At a time when businesses are outsourcing American jobs and the rich and powerful can hide their income in overseas tax havens, these are all legitimate lines of questioning that inform important policy debates. If Romney engaged in these activities himself, then his business practices are part of the problem that faces our economy. This is a vital and appropriate discussion for a presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, Republicans insult our intelligence with hypocritical complaints about dirty politics that ignore their own dirty past. Let me tell you something about dirty politics. I've been involved in or covered every presidential campaign since 1984, and I've seen Republicans engage in some of the dirtiest campaign politics imaginable.

My first job out of college took me to Massachusetts to work for Mike Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign, in which Republicans produced the infamous GOP Willie Horton ad. But they also fabricated a trivial and utterly fictitious storyline that Mike Dukakis didn't believe in the pledge of allegiance. One Republican senator even spread the vicious lie that Dukakis's wife Kitty had once burned the American flag. Those are the "serious" issues the GOP wanted to focus on.

In the 1990s, Republican Senator Jesse Helms attacked his Democratic opponent, Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, with a racially divisive campaign ad suggesting that Gantt wanted to take away jobs from whites to give them to minorities. In 2000, they even attacked one of their own, Senator John McCain, by suggesting he had fathered an illegitimate black child.

And we haven't even gotten to the Swiftboating of John Kerry or the Kenyan birth certificate lies about President Obama. After all the Republicans have done to coarsen the political rhetoric, they have little or no credibility to complain about negative campaign attacks now.

The Republican attack machine, invented by Lee Atwater in the 1980s, expanded by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and perfected by Karl Rove in the 2000s, has come back to haunt itself. The chickens have finally come home to roost.