This already weird campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has taken a dramatic turn that nobody could have predicted just a few days ago.
It’s as if the contest suddenly has become a sort of Occupy The GOP.
Front-runner Mitt Romney’s rivals are mounting the kind of attacks against him that could be expected from liberal Democrats but not conservative Republicans. In so doing, they’re challenging the central rationale for the Mittster’s candidacy — his business experience.
The focal point of this controversy are the practices of Bain Capital, the assets-management firm Romney co-founded in 1984 (above). Some of the companies Bain acquired on Romney’s watch have shed employees or gone bankrupt while Bain stockholders made big profits.
Critics might call this sort of thing soulless capitalism, or cowboy capitalism, or predatory capitalism.
Those aren’t terms that have actually crossed the lips of GOP presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or Jon Huntsman, but they’re pretty close to what those guys are saying.
Just yesterday, Gingrich said this:
“Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money? I do draw a distinction between looting a company, leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods and then leaving a factory that should be there.”
Perry, campaigning in South Carolina, accused Romney and Bain of “loot[ing]” a company in that state.
“If you’re a victim of Bain Capital’s downsizing, it’s the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina to tell you he feels your pain. Because he caused it,” Perry said.
The Texas governor also mocked a remark Romney made yesterday about once having feared that he might lose a job he held in the private sector.
“I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips — whether he’d have enough of them to hand out,” said Perry.
Perry also said this, sounding just like a Democrat:
“Voters are just now meeting the Real Romney — the buyout tycoon who executed takeovers, bankrupted businesses, and sent jobs overseas while killing American jobs.”
Huntsman suggested that the job-creation numbers Romney touts in reference to his experience at Bain have perhaps been “cooked.”
“Governor Romney enjoys firing people,”said Huntsman. “I enjoy creating jobs.”
As a practical political matter, I doubt that these attacks by his fellow Republicans on Romney’s brand of capitalism will cost him the GOP nomination. But they have the potential to change the national conversation and to haunt Romney in the general-election campaign.
UPDATE: Steve Benen offers an argument that parallels mine in part and adds THIS:
Romney has tried to argue that critics of his private-sector layoffs are borderline communists, trying to “put free enterprise on trial.” And yet, when there is no difference whatsoever between the message Dems are pushing and the attacks from Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman, it suggests the Romney line is a bust.
But more importantly, it also suggests the progressive line is what resonates with voters — even Republican voters. After all, it’s likely Perry, Gingrich, and Huntsman relied on polls and focus groups to identify the most potent message, and they all quickly found that this is the criticism that resonates.
For all the talk about this being a center-right nation, there’s a realization that Americans are uncomfortable with excessive greed and the kind of ruthless, screw-the-workers style of capitalism Romney used to get rich. If this discomfort didn’t exist, we wouldn’t see conservative Republican candidates using the argument to make appeals to conservative Republican voters.
UPDATE II: Benjy Sarlin SAYS the Republican attacks on Bain Capital have stolen a march on a plan the Democrats were holding in abeyance for the time being:
It wasn’t meant to be this way. For months Democrats had planned to wait until Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination and then they would unleash their secret weapon. Well, not-so-secret weapon, really: it’s something that most observers say cost Romney his campaign against Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994, and has bedeviled him in every campaign since.
The weapon is one short and unfortunately homophonic word: Bain. As in Bain Capital, the corporate management firm Romney helped to found and made his millions out of, raking in almost comically huge sums of money often even as the bought-up companies shrank, shriveled and shuttered.
Mitt Romney’s campaign has long been prepared to face tough attacks on Bain Capital’s history of layoffs. But what’s been a persistent headache has swollen into an aching migraine. And one of the people leading the charge tells TPM that the person most responsible is typically no friend of the Democrats at all; in fact, it’s Newt Gingrich.