It can be hard to tell who's winning the Bain Capital debate that's been roiling political circles this week. Oh sure, diehard partisans will insist their message is getting across and that their opponents are flailing, but we certainly needn't believe them. Yet there is a winner, and that winner is us.

 

It started on Sunday talk show "Meet the Press" when Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, criticized an ad put out by President Obama's re-election campaign. Booker judged the attack ad -- which contrasted Mitt Romney's touted business experience with the lives destroyed in the wake of his company's highly profitable machinations -- as "nauseating," explaining that it made him "very uncomfortable."

 

The fallout began immediately. Republicans pounced on the quotes, while Booker quickly walked them back, clarifying -- and then re-clarifying -- that he in fact stands with Obama 100 percent.

But the damage -- or rather, opportunity -- had been done. With no haste, another pair of Democrats, former Tennessee pol Harold Ford Jr. and Obama's former "auto czar" Steve Rattner, jumped aboard the Free Private Equity bandwagon, and Team Romney spun it all as an Obama attack on freedom.

 

Yet it's not too difficult to suss out what is going on here. Ford is currently a managing director for Morgan Stanley. Rattner co-founded a private equity firm and worked for Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and others. Booker is a sitting politician whose job is directly linked to the financial sector:?Bain and other similar firms contributed hundreds of thousands to his last election.

 

"I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity," Booker said. No, he's not, but not due to any strong moral convictions. Booker and his compatriots have a clear conflict of interest here; in Washington as elsewhere, you don't bite the hand that feeds you.

 

But nor must we eat from the hand that bites us. (Pardon the strained metaphor.) The financial industry bankrolls the entire political complex, making it practically impossible to oversee. Any time the conversation gets shifted to the real levers of power, and the arms that pull them, is a moment when we can honestly discuss the problems before us.

Is Romney gaining the upper hand? Did Obama score points? Who knows? Let's linger on this accidental peek into the smoke-filled room.

Follow Brayden Simms on Twitter @metropolitik