The GOP's latest target: Capitalism

Our view: The Republican presidential campaign takes an odd turn as contenders confront Mitt Romney's Bain Capital -- and the problems posed by unfettered free markets

January 10, 2012

The biggest story of the New Hampshire primary is unlikely to be the identity of the winner — polls suggest Mitt Romney has matters well in hand. The real surprise is what the candidates attacked. Surely no contemporary group of Republican presidential candidates (at least since prior to the days of Ronald Reagan) has derided wealth and capitalism quite as the current crop of non-Romneys has done this past week in the "Live Free Or Die" state.

That Mr. Romney would be the focus of criticism was no shock. But the way his fellow candidates have gone after the private-equity firm Bain Capital, which Mr. Romney headed in the 1990s, has been. Their use of language like "predatory" and "looted" — and the frequent out-of-context references to Mr. Romney's "I like to fire people" line — have been nothing less than remarkable.

Certainly, there is just cause to examine the dealings of his highly profitable investment firm and its handling of companies that laid off hundreds of workers or, in some cases, eventually filed for bankruptcy. To many Americans, leveraged buyouts are synonymous with the movie "Wall Street" and the character of Gordon Gekko, he of the motto "Greed is good" — good for investors, bad for workers.

But to hear the other candidates, former House speaker Newt Gingrich chief among them, go after Bain and its particular brand of deal-making with such vigor is to think you had stumbled into an Occupy Wall Street rally. And this line of attack is unlikely to end soon. Two costly Bain buyouts affecting hundreds of workers in South Carolina, including one that resulted in the closing of a steel mill, have drawn considerable attention and will almost certainly be scrutinized even more as candidates now focus on that state's Jan. 21 primary.

"If someone comes in, takes all the money out of your company and then leaves you bankrupt while they go off with millions, that's not traditional capitalism," Mr. Gingrich recently opined during an appearance on the "Today" show.

Such criticism would seem a bit more credible if Mr. Gingrich and others in the race had ever previously shown much interest in curbing the excesses of capitalism (or even acknowledging that they exist). But the GOP field is not exactly stocked with big supporters of the Dodd-Frank Act — or government regulation of the marketplace in general.

Making the uproar all the more surreal is Mr. Romney's weak-kneed defense of Bain. His claim that Bain deals netted 100,000 jobs stretches credibility to the breaking point, and he's offered no documentation of it to date. At least the fictional Gekko made the case that such deals could shake up moribund management, peel off layers of dead wood and, frankly, kill companies that deserved to be killed — at least from a shark's point of view.

Instead, Mr. Romney has tried to portray himself as the everyman in touch with the hardships facing ordinary Americans — going so far as to suggest he has feared receiving a pink slip during his career. The dubious claim provoked Texas Gov. Rick Perry to observe that the only fear Mr. Romney had vis-à-vis pink slips was that he'd run out of them.

Why have the Republicans suddenly become born-again "class-warfare" Democrats? Surely, part of it is the desperation of candidates who see their chances slipping away and are seizing whatever ammunition is available to them at the moment. Mr. Romney's support is not so firm or widespread as to view the battle as over in January, but their moment is slipping away.

It may also be the influence of the super-PACs and the way so much money has fueled attacks ads in the early primary states. Mr. Gingrich got clobbered by ads in Iowa courtesy of the pro-Romney Restore Our Future political action committee. Now, the pro-Gingrich Winning the Future super-PAC is poised to bash Bain in South Carolina just as viciously.

But it might also be this: Americans are concerned about corporate raiders, just as they are about others in the financial sector who have solidified their position in the 1 percent of earners while the 99 percent are left to share a shrinking slice of the pie. Republicans may continue to smirk at those who camp in city parks, but they couldn't keep denying their message. After all, they find themselves in a position all too many Americans can identify with these days: six applicants, one job.

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