Last night, Ed and I were engaged in a brief, online discussion about the recent attacks on Mitt Romney regarding his work at Bain Capital, and if Newt had the same “vulnerability” by dint of his past ties to Forstmann Little. There was an impromptu expansion to our discussion group when we were joined by William Jacobson, a distinguished conservative scholar from up in my neck of the woods at Cornell Law School and proprietor of Le*gal In*sur*rec*tion. Professor Jacobson apparently took umbrage with the idea of comparing Newt to Mitt in this fashion and seemed to be supporting the current meme of going after the Bain connection while enthusiastically denying that such an argument damaged the Virgo Intacta status of the attackers as true fiscal conservatives who support capitalism. In the process, he may have opened my eyes to a different explanation for the situation we find ourselves in now.

Since I’ve remained curious about how one manages the mental gymnastics which seem to be required to make this case, I asked him to explain his position a bit more fully. (No easy feat, given the 140 character limit of Twitter, I assure you.) He told me that it was “not anti-capitalism” to question Mitt’s business practices or to say that some types of business practices can be perceived as a negative in a candidate. He also pointed me to a recent article he had penned on the subject, though I confess I still wasn’t seeing the distinction between that and attacking capitalism after reading it.

In response, I asked him if he found Romney’s “corporate raiding” style at Bain to be illegal? Immoral? In need of more government regulation? (It’s with a small amount of embarrassment that I admit I threw that last possibility in there intentionally as sort of the literary equivalent of tossing a spike strip in front of a fleeing car thief. Asking a conservative thinker like Jacobson to call for more regulation was a long shot at best and he completely failed to take the bait, as one might expect.)

But his response still left me unsatisfied. He selected “no” on both illegal and in need of more government regulation, but on the question of immoral he said, “Let the voters decide.” I pointed out that he himself is a voter, so surely that must mean he had questions about the morality of Bain’s tactics, to which he responded, yes, he had questions, but was “waiting for all of the facts to come out.”

In the end, though, I mentioned that I hoped he would write another column on the subject, and he’s done so. In it, unless I’m reading this wrong, he’s not making the argument that what Romney did was wrong in some sense, but that enough voters might perceive of it as being wrong to sway the election.

It’s sad to see so many in the Republican Party so incapable of distinguishing between economic and political arguments.

The question all along has not been whether a predatory style of investing should be legal, or whether it serves some larger purpose in our economic system. The question is do we want to the entirety of the general election turned into a referendum on Bain, which it will be if Romney is the nominee regardless of whether or by what means the issue is raised in the primaries.

I want the general election to be about Obama, and his movement of the country towards a West European style of socialism. Capitalism, which achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people, easily should win that argument. Yet it may not because the Republican Party now has equated capitalism to Bain.

Capitalism can beat Obama, Bain cannot.

Some will undoubtedly look on that sort of explanation as “care trolling” in some sense, and say that we should stand behind a more vigorous defense of capitalism in principle rather than shying away for fear of scaring off impressionable moderate voters. I may wind up in that camp myself. But I will at least acknowledge that worrying about Mitt’s possible perception problems is, if nothing else, a more valid concern than jumping on the attack ad bandwagon and saying, “Mitt cost everyone their jobs!”

Yet I can’t steer myself away from feeling that this is still something of a retreat. I will close with a quote and a link to Jay Nordlinger at The Corner, who sums it up nicely.

The last two presidential election cycles have revealed a stinking hypocrisy in conservatives: They profess their love of capitalism and entrepreneurship, but when offered a real capitalist and entrepreneur, they go, “Eek, a mouse!” And they tear him down in proud social-democrat fashion. In the off season, they sound like Friedrich Hayek. When the game is on, they sound like Huey Long, Bella Abzug, or Bob Shrum.

Last time around, Mike Huckabee said Romney “looks like the guy who laid you off.” Conservatives reacted like this was the greatest mot since Voltaire or something. To me, Romney looked like someone who could create a business and hire the sadly unentrepreneurial like me.

Others said, “He looks like a car salesman,” or, worse, “a used-car salesman.” Ho ho ho! Commerce, gross, icky, yuck. Better Romney looked like an anthropology professor.

Moving on!