Monday, January 9, 2012 – the day before the New Hampshire primary, where the Republicans make a second attempt to choose someone to run against Obama – and the day Newt Gingrich – seething with anger at being sandbagged in Iowa by millions of negative ads from the Romney crowd – decided to turn into Michael Moore. No, really. And John Dickerson puts it nicely:
“I’m a business guy,” Mitt Romney likes to say. He hardly needs to. He so exudes corporate prowess, he could wear a tiny corner office as a lapel pin. For months, “I’m a business guy” has been the mantra of his campaign: It meant he understands the economy and has been in charge.
Now, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, his rivals would like to make that phrase poison in his mouth. Instead of a successful businessman who can help create jobs and improve lives, they are painting Romney as a ruthless Wall Street home wrecker. “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?” Newt Gingrich asked Monday. “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.”
Dickerson notes that Gingrich had started down this road weeks ago when he challenged Romney – Romney should just give back the money “from bankrupting companies over his years at Bain.” But then Gingrich let that go. Back then he was saying he’d be positive and upbeat and all that – before he came in a distant fourth in Iowa. But now his Super-PAC has released a long video portraying Romney as a nasty corporate raider, motivated by nothing but greed. The guy bought up companies for a profit – a profit made by letting them fail, or assuring that they failed – so he could sell off the remaining parts for big bucks. Here’s the preview – but just think of Bain Capital as a chop-shop. Car thieves know you can make far more money selling the parts rather than the whole. It was kind of like that – or maybe not.
The New York Times ran a story about how Gingrich’s PAC, newly flush with five million dollars from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, had released this twenty-seven minute documentary about Romney’s days at Bain Capital. It seems this is intended to be the foundation of an ad campaign in South Carolina, telling the state’s Republican voters all about Romney’s days at Bain Capital – and we’re talking human wreckage. “That was a man that destroyed us,” says one laid-off worker in the film. It’s pure Michael Moore.
Dickerson reports that Romney said he was surprised to see his Republican rivals “put free enterprise on trial.” Yeah, well, Dickerson says that won’t wash:
This surprise showed in his tone-deaf response. After the debate he talked at a town hall about how he had feared a pink slip, something that may very well have been true when he was younger but is so at odds with his current posture that he should have known better than to say it. Monday, in a discussion about changing insurance companies, he said “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Governor! Ixnay on the iringfay.
What isn’t arcane is what followed:
Jon Huntsman said Romney “enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs.” Rick Perry said Romney was “getting rich off of failure and sticking it to someone else.” Perry said Romney was worried about pink slips because he was afraid he might run out of them….
Primaries warp parties. Bill Clinton, who was called the first black president, was accused of racism. Now Republicans are punishing private-sector success.
But Dickerson isn’t sure what to make of this:
There could be a backlash against his critics from conservatives irritated by the attack on competition and free enterprise. But if he keeps talking about pink slips and firing people, this could become a problem. He is also not very good about offering anecdotes about his struggling years or the good things that came from his years building up companies. …
Huntsman campaign manager John Weaver said Romney’s response to the criticism was so gaffe-laden and tone-deaf; the candidate resembled John Kerry, which makes him unelectable. What’s surely true is that he’ll face more attacks like this if he qualifies for the general election. In that sense he should thank his rivals for giving him the chance to practice. If he were stumbling against Obama in the fall, he might never have a chance to recover.
And Gingrich got the ball rolling here. And Slate’s David Weigel surveys the damage:
This is the break-the-glass plan for Mitt’s GOP opponents: An attack on Romney’s brand of capitalism, funded by profits from the Venetian’s craps table. On Sunday, I heard Gingrich himself malign Romney as a “rich [person] figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company, leaving behind 1,700 families without a job.” It was surreal – Republicans aren’t known for bashing big business – and it may backfire. On Monday I drove around New Hampshire and heard conservatives struggling to understand it.
“I’ve known Newt Gingrich since 1994,” said Laura Ingraham in an interview with Tyler. “I’ve never heard Newt make a speech about predatory practices.”
“Newt is using the language of the left in going after Romney on Bain Capital,” sighed Rush Limbaugh. “That makes me uncomfortable.”
And Weigel says it should:
The attack on Bain as some lumbering vampire, sucking wealth and mirth out of small towns, is exactly what Ted Kennedy’s strategist Bob Shrum used to smack Romney in his 1994 U.S. Senate race. Before the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic National Committee kept showing up at Romney rallies with people laid off from Bain-looted companies. (Let’s just use the Gingrich framework, for now.) These attacks from the left didn’t get a ton of attention because “Democratic Party Opposes Wealthy Republican’s Business Decisions” isn’t a very interesting story.
But a populist, anti-venture capital campaign that’s pitched to Republicans? That’s something else.
And Weigel then describes this new movie financed by the new Rich Friends of Newt:
If you hired a documentarian from Occupy Wall Street and told him to make anti-Romney agitprop, he couldn’t do better. The movie portrays Romney as a heartless, Brylcreemed supervillain who “contributed to the greatest American job loss since World War II.”
It starts with imagery of Americans doing nice, American things. Capitalism, we’re told, is nice. It’s the reason the sun comes up over wheat fields and dads take their kids on hikes. (File footage might be the actual reason.) But Mitt Romney’s capitalism is so heinous that it can only be portrayed by the color draining out of an American flag. “Wall Street’s corporate leaders made billions of dollars,” moans a narrator. “Their greed was only matched by their willingness to make millions in profits. Nothing was spared. Nothing mattered but greed. This film is about one such raider and his firm.”
Cue the interviews with laid-off workers, who describe their health problems and their shattered towns. Romney brought down UniMac, a washing machine company, when Bain cheapened their products. “Sometimes we’d send a machine out without a part on it,” admits a shaken Romney survivor named Tommy Jones. “For Tracy and Tommy Jones,” says the narrator, “their brush with Mitt Romney and Bain nearly tore their family apart.”
UniMac, KB Toys, every company “looted” by Bain would have been fine if Romney hadn’t raided it, the film maintains. “Romney called it creative destruction,” says the narrator.
After the Tea Party took over the GOP, who thought that Republicans would start attacking laissez faire capitalism?
Maybe they got the idea from the Occupy Wall Street folks. But Newt, and the others, certainly pissed off the Club for Growth – “Attacking Governor Romney for participating in free-market capitalism is just beyond the pale for any purported ‘Reagan Conservative.'”
Of course it is, but the times they are a-changing. Bob Dylan is probably giggling right now. But of course Romney will win the New Hampshire primary. Weigel says the times are not changing quite fast enough for that to change:
But when I asked voters about Bain – admittedly, I was asking people who weren’t too warm on Romney – I started to hear why the Newt attack could work. “If I understand it,” said John O’Brien, a voter who planned to switch from Romney ’08 to Huntsman ’12, “he made his money at the expense of other companies. Didn’t he? He dismantled them, I think.”
In 2008, when he supported Romney, he didn’t ask about the Bain years, and until recently, he hadn’t thought much about it. But now he’s open to the critique.
So we have an odd situation:
Republicans figured that the post-2008 collapse of trust in authority had been converted very smoothly into distrust for government. But Newt is betting that the distrust of corporate finance, of Wall Street, never really went away.
Romney ended his Monday with a rally down the road from Manchester, in Bedford. It was interrupted, like plenty of Romney’s rallies, by Occupy protesters. They were pulled away by cops as the candidate scorned them.
“What would you replace America with?” asked Romney. “What kind of system would you have?”
Is that a rhetorical question, or a real question? Maybe Romney doesn’t want the answer.
But Andrew Leonard explores the real question:
It is no surprise to see Mitt Romney attacked as a caricature of Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider immortalized in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street.” As far back as 1994, when Romney ran for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy successfully defeated him by utilizing that exact attack strategy. And it is in no way fundamentally wrong.
Like Gekko, Romney made his fortune buying and selling companies; and like Gekko, he believes that his “greed is good” version of rough-and-tumble creative destruction is a positive force for America, weeding out the bad performers and nurturing lean-and-mean profit engines. If you are looking for the paradigmatic exemplar of the new style of capitalism mogul launched by the Reagan revolution, Romney is your man. Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko is merely ersatz.
The shock is to see Newt Gingrich and his financial backers channeling the Oliver Stone critique so passionately and wholeheartedly.
Okay, Leonard would rather talk about Oliver Stone than Michael Moore, and he explains why:
Michael Moore doesn’t sting this hard, and MoveOn isn’t this angry. If Romney, as expected, ends up winning the Republican nomination, Obama’s campaign team can relax. Their work has already been done.
Leonard does note “that much is being made of whether Gingrich has broken some sort of unspoken code of Republican primary collegiality by declaring class warfare on Romney” and cites Jonathan Chait saying that you can question whether a fellow Republican candidate is a true conservative – as is done all the time – but to call him a “plunderer” is or should be or used to be beyond the pale. This is amazing, and Leonard notes:
Plundering is what capitalism is all about! The free market is supposed to be built on the principle of unrestrained plunderation. Or it would be, if Democrats didn’t keep getting in the way with their socialist-leaning regulations.
That’s the official line, and now Newt has upended everything, and Leonard points to the irony of all this:
In 1987, “Wall Street” served as a vehicle for a left-wing attack on the emerging values of the Reagan era. There was a new kind of capitalism in town, and Oliver Stone made a passionate case for its wrongness, for its destructive elevation of the concept of shareholder value at the expense of all else.
But Oliver Stone lost that battle. The movie made a lot of money but it didn’t make a dent in an emerging bipartisan consensus that yes, greed was good, and anything that restrained Wall Street from pursuing its vision of how capitalism should be practiced was bad.
And Leonard hones in on that specific year:
In 1987 Newt Gingrich was a congressman from Georgia who made news by successfully bringing ethics charges against Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. The historical record does not easily reveal whether he expressed a public opinion on the movie “Wall Street” that year, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that, if asked, he would have dismissed Oliver Stone’s assault on Wall Street as liberal folly. And indeed, seven years later, Gingrich led the historic Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, a feat that can be regarded as cementing the Reagan impulse toward deregulation in place.
He had help, of course, from Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, all of whom agreed, at the time, that letting Big Capital do as it pleased was the best economic policy for America. But Gingrich deserves special credit. During the Clinton interregnum, Gingrich kept the flames of the conservative revolution burning brightly.
But over the years CEO compensation exploded and income equality grew. Something started to smell. And Benjamin Wallace-Wells details in his New York magazine item The Romney Economy how it seems Mitt Romney and Bain Capital aided and abetted those two complimentary processes. And Leonard points out that, for a time, no one smelled a thing:
Even the great eruption of the financial crisis, which some of us thought at the time would absolutely, positively force a deep rethinking of the relationship between Wall Street and the government and the working man, hardly seemed to cause a ripple. It was as if terrorists blew up the train track, and the locomotive chugged right along, undamaged.
Until 2011. Until Occupy Wall Street. Until, suddenly, it was the 1 percent who became marginalized. Until the political power of Main Street anger matured, stunningly, into a politically potent force. There is no better demonstration of this than the fact that Newt Gingrich is now wearing a Leon Trotsky mask, or that Jon Huntsman is saying that, if elected, he would break up the big banks and Rick Santorum is declaring that a “commander-in-chief is not a CEO.”
What the Wall Street Journal euphemistically calls “the rougher side of American capitalism,” in its Monday article examining the legacy of Bain Capital, is suddenly no longer in fashion. And there is no better proof of this than the spectacle of one of the great culture warriors of our time, Newt Gingrich, defecting to the other side.
That Wall Street Journal article is here and now seems quaint. And you know the argument – if you want an omelet you have to crack a few eggs and all that. But people now may not want the omelet. Flapjacks will do. Is it too early for flapjacks? Maybe just black coffee will do.
And of course all this just highlights what Leonard says is Romney’s biggest vulnerability:
In the 32 years since Ronald Reagan was elected president, there has never been more widely expressed antagonism and anger toward the practitioners of corporate-raider, leveraged-buyout, excessively compensated CEO, shareholder-value capitalism than there is now.
And that’s Mitt Romney. That is who he is. He can flip-flop about everything else, but there’s no way to wriggle out of his essential nature. He’s the 1 percent – even Newt Gingrich says so.
Yes, just go to that new movie’s website:
Mitt Romney was not a capitalist during his reign at Bain. He was a predatory corporate raider. His firm didn’t seek to create value. Instead, like a scavenger, Romney looked for businesses he could pick apart. Indeed, he represented the worst possible kind of predator, operating within the law but well outside the bounds of what most real capitalists consider ethical. ….
He and his friends at Bain were bad guys. Any real capitalists should disavow Romney’s “creative destruction” model that made him wealthy at the expense of thousands of American jobs.
And Kevin Drum comments:
Yes, that’s a site affiliated with Newt Gingrich arguing that there are boundaries to “real” capitalism. What’s more, those boundaries are largely ones that liberals have been talking about for years. There are also attacks on Romney’s 11,000 square-foot house and his “corporations are people too” quote. Romney even took “foreign seed money from Latin America”!
This is brutal stuff…
And as for Romney’s line about how he likes firing people, see James Fallows:
I have fired people, and I have been fired – and there is no comparison in how much more excruciating the former process is. I know, agree with, and have even written a book about all the reasons why “flexibility” in the labor force is a good thing for companies and for the overall economy. People need to be held accountable for good or bad performance. Economies need to be able to move from the old – old markets, technologies, regions, emphases – and open up to the new. Companies very often need to “right-size” to survive. We all understand these truths. They are part of America’s strength.
But people with any experience on either side of a firing know that, necessary as it might be, it is hard. Or it should be. It’s wrenching, it’s humiliating, it disrupts families, it creates shame and anger alike – notwithstanding the fact that often it absolutely has to happen. Anyone not troubled by the process – well, there is something wrong with that person. We might want such a person to do dirty work for us. … We might value him or her as a takeover specialist or at a private equity firm. But as someone we trust, as a leader? No – not any more than you can trust a military leader who is not deeply troubled when his troops are killed.
Well, that’s a thought. But is Newt Gingrich the alternative, or just one more guy out to do damage, for power and glory?
Still, something is going on here. All these guys sneered at the folks down in Zuccotti Park. And now, to have a chance at any of that power and glory that they so desperately want, they find they have to act as if those odd folks in the park had a valid point. And maybe it’s only an act, now – just cynical pragmatism. But keep it up and that could change. Even new ways of thinking can become habitual. And there might even be a new Newt.
But this is just politics. Don’t hold your breath. Just enjoy the odd ride for now.