FORTUNE — Mitt Romney isn’t spending too much time defending private equity. And, as much as I’d like him to reconsider, it’s probably a wise political move.
The issue was raised earlier today on CNBC, during a conversation between Squawk Box anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin and David Rubenstein, co-founder and CEO of private equity powerhouse The Carlyle Group (CG). Here’s the relevant portion:
Sorkin pushed on the point a bit more, to which Rubenstein noted that presidential candidates usually talk more about what they want to do if elected than what they’ve actually done in the past (citing President Obama as an example).
I’m absolutely certain that Mitt Romney takes a lot of pride in his time running Bain Capital, as Rubenstein suggests. But I’m not so sure that he chose “to talk about other things” because of some future vs. past optics strategy. Instead, I think he chose to talk about other things because private equity does not lend itself well to sound bites.
Here’s how a Romney supporter recently put it to me: “Every minute he spends explaining what he did at Bain is a minute he spends confusing an undecided voter.”
This isn’t to say the electorate is dumb. It’s to say that top-level private equity is arcane stuff that takes serious study to understand, and that every underlying deal and portfolio company decision is predicated on multiple factors that can range from contemporaneous interest rates to unexpected competition to a senior line manager’s unfortunate cocaine habit. In other words, it’s a rabbit hole. And if Romney takes the jump, it’s unlikely that most voters would have the time or interest in the ensuing adventure.
For example, take the case of Dade Behring. It’s an old Bain Capital deal over which Romney has taken a beating, due to numerous layoffs and the fact that Bain made money even though the company went bankrupt on its watch. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Obama mention it during a debate, if given the opportunity.
Here’s how Romney could respond, if he chose to engage as David Rubenstein would like:
Not exactly the sort of snappy reply that works best in politics. And, even at that length, it assumes enough financial sophistication to know terms like “dividend recap” and “prepackaged bankruptcy.” Does anyone really think Romney would be better off with that sort of explanation, rather than just avoiding the matter all together?
To be sure, Rubenstein is right to be frustrated. His reputation, and that of all private equity investors, is becoming collateral damage. But the solution is not for Romney to make a more passionate defense, because there is no pragmatic way to do so. Instead, private equity must simply grit its collective teeth until November 7, and then hope that it fades back into obscurity.
Sure that sounds unfair. But so is getting laid off because of currency fluctuations. Sometimes there are forces beyond your control.
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