“If you want to make a counterintuitive case about the attacks, the better one is that the attacks could help Mr. Romney to win the nomination. Precisely because they are potentially damaging to him, Republican party actors may be quick to rally around him — hoping to declare the Republican nomination over by T.K.O. rather than enduring a 15-round fight in which Mr. Romney is heavily favored but may wind up bloodied. Already, we have seen some evidence of this: a major donor to Mr. Perry’s campaign ‘flipped’ to Mr. Romney because he did not like the substance of Mr. Perry’s recent comments.

“Meanwhile, it is unclear how compelling the attacks might be to Republican base voters. I am not going to render a prediction about whether they will work, particularly given the ambiguities in South Carolina polling and the fact that the South as a whole has long been fertile territory for economic populism. But one might attribute higher odds of success to attacks that more clearly originated from the right — those that attacked Mr. Romney, for instance, for his passage of a health care bill that contained an individual mandate, or that pointed out his supposed apostasies on social issues.

“What’s unusual about the attacks on Bain Capital is that they might be more compelling to independent voters than to Republican primary voters. Politics ain’t beanbag, and sometimes the front-runner will be attacked by any means necessary, even if it might produce collateral damage. But rarely has there been an attack that had such uncertain potential to harm a candidate in a primary but such clear potential to harm him in the general election.”

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“Capitalists of Romney’s sort never want to acknowledge how much their ability to make money depends on what government does. How does it structure the laws related to property, taxation and debt? What rules does it write on how companies can be acquired and how power within firms is apportioned among shareholders, employees, managers and other stakeholders? These are not natural laws. They are the work of politicians and the lobbyists who influence them.

“Which leads to this observation from Gingrich: ‘I think there’s a real difference,’ he said, ‘between people who believed in the free market and people who go around, take financial advantage, loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns, people on unemployment.’ Yes, there are different kinds of capitalism.

“Romney’s victory speech suggested that he hopes that the campaign will be about whether President Obama wants to turn the United States into Europe. A more relevant discussion would be over what American capitalism is — and should be. Thanks to Gingrich and Perry, this debate is now unavoidable.”

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“Gingrich recalls another impressive, flawed political figure. I have in mind a Southerner, attracted to big ideas, fascinated by management theories and scientific paradigms, prone to grandiosity and moralism, capable of both insight and bullying, leading through the cultivation of constant alarm. Al Gore was also transformed by defeat, which coincided with an ‘assault on reason,’ a failure of ‘rational analysis’ and the ‘shocking decay and degradation of our democracy.’ The political failure of a figure so large required cosmic explanation. Gore’s opponents became ‘digital brown shirts’ and ‘un-American’ and a ‘renegade band of right-wing extremists’ who had ‘betrayed the country.’ Grievance merged with self-importance. It is easy to imagine Gore delivering Gingrich’s words: ‘If you want to smear people who are trying to think, fine.’

“Newt Gingrich is becoming the Al Gore of the Republican Party — but with one large difference. By accepting the role of vindictive prophet, Gore appeals to a subset of the progressive coalition — the sort of people who find Keith Olbermann fair and balanced. (Gore, in fact, employs him.) Whatever Gore’s flaws, he is the leader of a cause.

“It is currently difficult to discern any cause in the Gingrich campaign apart from Gingrich himself. He is the party of one — one world-historic leader, supported primarily by one billionaire. This is not a movement; it is the prosecution of a feud. Like Samson, Gingrich is willing to pull down the temple around him. But, in this case, it is not the Philistines who suffer. It is Republicans in the rubble.”

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“Yet, like the snobby homecoming queen who thinks everyone hates her because they are jealous, Romney can’t see that it’s not his financial success in itself that is the problem. It’s that many people find his self-serving brand of capitalism – which was the hallmark of the recent economic collapse – repulsive…

“[M]aking a profit is only one component of owning a business. Whatever happened to the idea that you are responsible for your workers and to the larger community? Too often, people feel like just pawns in a ‘game’ of ever increasing largesse for the top dogs. The big shots are always the winners – often getting payouts in the millions when their companies fail — and the ‘losers’ are left to figure out how to eat or buy clothes for their children. (A new study found that $100 million “golden parachutes” have become commonplace for failed CEOs)…

“The unlikely hero in this tale has been Newt Gingrich, who has been making the most coherent argument for ethical capitalism. Says Gingrich, what we want is, ‘a free enterprise system that is honest. . . fair to everyone and gives everyone an equal opportunity to pursue happiness.’ Criticizing Romney’s brand of free enterprise, Gingrich said, ‘It’s not fine if the person who is rich manipulates the system, gets away with all the cash and leaves behind the human beings.’

“Be still my heart.”

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“Through his defenses of his pro-corporate welfare lobbying efforts and his facile attacks on Mitt Romney’s profits, Gingrich has emerged this election as an enemy of the free market — an unlikely distinction for a member of the Republican Party, which is supposed to stand for the free market. The pious preachments of liberal college professors, the foolhardy machinations of liberal central planners, and the even the greedy public-policy profiteering of subsidy-suckling CEOs and regulatory robber barons are all less harmful to economic liberty than the insidious and Orwellian campaign by the former speaker…

“The Gingrich narrative — that Romney made money by laying off good working men and women — is breathtakingly simplistic, the sort of thing you expect from an Upton Sinclair or a Dennis Kucinich. Layoffs cause pain, and conservatives and free-traders have historically had trouble sympathizing with the emotional and financial difficulties caused when the invisible hand determines that one’s job does not yield the optimal allocation of wealth. To put it in free-market lingo: Every misallocation of resources benefits someone, and sometimes that person is an underprivileged, low-income, hard-working American…

“Gingrich the lobbyist extracted wealth from society through his government connections, and then defended it, perversely, as ‘free enterprise.’ Now Gingrich the candidate is attacking Romney for the crime of being implicated in capitalism.”

***

“[G]reat presidents are often aristocrats and experienced political insiders. They experience great setbacks. They feel the presence of God’s hand on their every move.

“Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to talk about these things openly these days. We disdain elitism, political experience and explicit God-talk. Great failure is considered ‘baggage’ in today’s campaign lingo.

“Today’s candidates have to invent bogus story lines to explain their qualifications to be president — that they are innocent outsiders or business whizzes. In reality, Romney’s Bain success is largely irrelevant to the question of whether he could be a good president. The real question is whether he has picked up traits like emotional security, political judgment and an instrumental mind-set from his upbringing and the deeper experiences of life.

“We’ll learn more about that as he confronts brutal attacks that now besiege him.”

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