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Is the GOP eating its young by attacking Romney's Bain Capital record?

January 10, 2012|By James Oliphant
  • Mitt Romney greets the media while at a polling station in Manchester, N.H.
Mitt Romney greets the media while at a polling station in Manchester, N.H. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)

The assault on Mitt Romney’s record as a private equity investor -- led by, of all people, Newt Gingrich -- has one influential Washington special interest group screaming “enough!"

That would be the Club for Growth, the conservative anti-tax advocates who on Monday released a statement decrying Gingrich’s attack on Romney’s work at Bain Capital as, well, un-Republican.

“Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital are disgusting,” the group’s president, Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman, said. “There are a number of issues for Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents to attack him for, but attacking him for making investments in companies to create a profit for his investors is just wrong. Because of the efforts of Bain Capital, major companies like Staples, Domino’s Pizza, and the Sports Authority now employ thousands of people and have created billions in wealth in the private economy. Attacking Gov. Romney for participating in free-market capitalism is just beyond the pale for any purported ‘Reagan Conservative.’ Newt Gingrich should stop his attacks on free markets and apologize to Gov. Romney for them.”

On the same day, a private equity trade group complained that it had grown weary of attacks on the industry by Republicans and Democrats alike.

"There is a lot of misinformation being spread, purely for political purposes and on both sides of the aisle, as it pertains to private equity," said Steve Judge, interim head of the Private Equity Growth Capital Council. "While the business model has evolved over time, the fact of the matter is private equity provides capital and operational expertise to companies that are often under-performing or on the brink of failure."

On Tuesday, the conservative National Review, too, disapproved: "To abominate Mitt Romney for having been a success at the business of investing in struggling American companies, connecting entrepreneurs with capital and producers with markets, is foolish and destructive," the magazine's editors wrote, saying Republicans should "know better."

Romney did not have a good day Monday. He inadvertently stepped right into the building narrative, pushed jointly by Gingrich, Rick Perry, and the Democratic National Committee, that he was a soulless, chainsaw-wielding, job-destroyer in his time at Bain when he suggested at a campaign event that employees should be able to choose their own health insurer.

"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," Romney said.

Gingrich accused Romney of "looting" companies while at Bain and suggested that atavistic capitalism might be a slightly "flawed" system, while Perry mocked him for saying he had been concerned about receiving a "pink slip" at one point in his life. (Watch video below.)

“If you are the victim of Bain Capital’s downsizing, it is the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina and tell you he feels your pain — he caused it," Perry said at a campaign event down South.

Romney, the GOP front-runner, like the Club for Growth, has pushed back on the attacks, suggesting that critics are putting “free enterprise on trial," but the conflict has again revealed an interesting schism in the Republican Party, one that first surfaced in 2009 and 2010 with the rise of the tea party. That movement’s origins lay in the notion that Wall Street (along with government) was benefiting at the expense of everyday American wage-earners.

Increasingly, Gingrich, Perry, Jon Huntsman Jr., and Rick Santorum have tried to appeal to this strain of the party by attacking Romney’s Bain record. You might call it class warfare, except Republicans hate that term. Santorum went so far as to say, over the weekend, that the term “middle class” shouldn’t be part of the conservative lexicon (despite the fact he has, on his website, pledged to rebuild that very class).

Romney appears to be keenly aware of the criticism that he can’t relate to ordinary people and, beyond wearing patterned shirts, has at times struggled to show that he gets it. It was probably no coincidence that the low point of his campaign came at a debate in Iowa on Dec. 10, when Gingrich was surging at the polls. That was the night of the infamous “$10,000 bet” Romney offered to make with Perry. But while that bet got all the ink, Romney, at a separate point, was keenly honest about his upbringing and how difficult it can be for a man who grew up with wealth and privilege to convince working-class Americans he can connect with their fears.

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