Gingrich Swift Boats Romney

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There is an informal set of rules governing attacks in the presidential primary campaigns, so as to keep things within the healthy, winnowing spirit of Darwinian competition, and away from dangerous subversion of the eventual nominee. One guideline is that attacks from the flanks are more allowable than attacks from the center. (“Mitt Romney is not a true conservative” is fine, because it won’t be the Democrats’ theme this fall; “Mitt Romney will cut Medicare” is another story.) Another, more informal criterion is that the closer a candidate gets to wrapping up the nomination, the more gentle his opponents must be in assailing him.

By these standards, Newt Gingrich’s new message assailing Mitt Romney is a remarkable breach of protocol.

With the benefit of a $5 million infusion from right-wing casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich is planning an assault in South Carolina that centers on Romney’s career at Bain Capital. At this point, Romney is a heavy favorite to win. What’s more, Gingrich’s Bain attack is indistinguishable from the themes that pro-Democratic groups are using to discredit him against Obama. (Compare Newt’s anti-Romney ad with this one from MoveOn.)

Politically, the ads are devastating to Romney, whose message against Obama is that he is a “job creator” who understands the private economy. The message of the ads is that his private-sector experience consists of looting companies and destroying the livelihoods of working-class people. The victims testifying in his ads are the working-class people who have suffered economic stagnation over the last three decades that was accelerated by the revolutionary changes to the economy of which Romney was at the forefront. (If you haven’t already done so, read Ben Wallace-Wells's story on Romney, Bain, and the transformation of the economy.)

The political effect of these ads is to turn Romney’s chief selling point into a liability – his private-sector experience becomes an indicator not that he will fix the economy but that he will help the already-rich. It’s a smash-you-over-the-head blunt message, with ominous music and storybook dialogue. At one point, the narrator says of  Bain’s executives, “their greed was only matched by their willingness to do anything to make millions in profits.” (Aren’t “greed” and “willingness to do anything to make millions in profits” synonymous terms? Isn’t this like saying “his height was matched only by like lack of shortness”?)

The substantive merits of the attack are, obviously, a lot murkier. Romney’s job at Bain was a classic piece of creative destruction. The proper working of a free market system relies on ruthlessly identifying and closing down non-competitive business concerns. Gingrich’s assault relies on drawing a distinction between real capitalism and the “looting” undertaken by Bain Capital. “If somebody comes in takes all the money out of your company, and then leaves you bankrupt while they go off with millions,” he argues, “that’s not traditional capitalism.” The distinction is utterly ephemeral. It’s a way of saying you’d like all the nice aspects of capitalism without the nasty ones – creating new firms and products without liquidating old ones. For once I agree with inequality-denier and supply-side maven James Pethokoukis, who praises Romney’s work at Bain.

On the other hand, bringing ourselves face-to-face with the very real victims of Romney’s business career explodes his fairy tale of having been a “job creator.” He was in the business of creating wealth, not jobs. Capitalism increases a society’s standard of living, but it does not increase its rate of employment. If your goal is simply to give every willing worker a job, then socialism is the system you want.

Since we want to increase our standard of living, we want capitalism. That wealth benefits the whole society over the long run, but in the short run it can destroy lives and communities — which, of course, is one justification for the role of government in siphoning off a portion of the limitless wealth generated by the Mitt Romneys of the world in order to alleviate social dislocation. But the thrust of Romney’s platform is that people like himself give too much already, and those left behind get too much. His self-presentation as a “job creator” is an attempt to paint over that ugly reality. Republicans must be furious that Gingrich, of all people, is helping expose it.