How Gingrich's Attack on Romney and Bain Backfired

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The former Speaker punched back hard at a suggestion that he return money from Freddie Mac -- alienating both wings of his party in the process.

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It seems like it was just this fall that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were accusing President Obama of socialism -- directly in Gingrich's case, indirectly in Romney's. In fact, it was just this fall.

So how did we get to here? On Monday, Romney, stumping in New Hampshire, took a shot a Gingrich's work consulting for Freddie Mac. "He was in the business of connecting folks with government," Romney said, calling Gingrich's claim that he made $1.6 million as a historian bogus. "That would make him the highest paid historian in history," he quipped.

Asked about the comments while traveling elsewhere in the Granite State, the former House Speaker fired back. "If Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be happy to at least listen to him," Gingrich said. "I would bet you $10, not $10,000, that he won't take the offer."

The two Republicans are accusing each other of profiteering, but both situations -- however distasteful certain sectors of the electorate may find them -- are perfectly legal exercises of capitalism. As the GOP struggles to find a message that appeals to its conservative base (and especially the more activist Tea Party wing) while also corresponding to straitened economic times where making money hand-over-fist isn't as kindly looked upon by the general electorate, the result is this sort of cognitive dissonance.

Even in that context, Gingrich's attack was probably foolish. Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac (rightly or wrongly) smacks of insider Washington back-room deals. Worse, he was working for a government-backed company that's become a favorite Republican target since the housing bubble popped. Romney's tenure at Bain Capital is another matter. While Democrats have eagerly bashed the private-equity giant, accusing it of putting Americans out of work, the firm is the sort of entrepreneurial success story Republicans love.

By choosing to take sides with Democrats and attack Romney from the left, Gingrich is putting himself in a bind. Unlike other issues where he has tacked to the center -- immigration, most notably -- it's hard to see how he gains any advantage from this approach against Obama in a hypothetical general election. Of course, he hasn't won the nomination yet, even if his poll numbers are soaring.

With Republican voters, however, he's clearly misstepped. Conservative commentators are responding to Gingrich's remarks in two ways. The first group contends that he meant what he said, and what he said was incredibly stupid. Here's Ed Morrissey of HotAir:

Romney didn't make millions of dollars bankrupting companies and laying off workers for the sake of doing either or both. Free-market capitalism requires some "creative destruction" to rescue capital that is being used inefficiently and/or badly and putting it to more productive use. Anyone who doesn't understand that really doesn't understand free-market capitalism, and that's not merely an academic exercise.

Charles Krauthammer was even sharper: "This kind of attack is what you'd expect from a socialist." For this group, Gingrich's remarks lend credence to critics who see him as entirely out of step with the Tea Party, as Conor Friedersdorf wrote in this space last week.

Meanwhile, Gingrich is also giving ammunition to the establishment wing of the party, which is convinced he is a loose cannon incapable of managing himself, much less the nation. Fox News' Brit Hume basically dismissed the attack on Romney as disingenuous, but wasn't about to let Gingrich off the hook:

Does he really feel what he did at Freddie Mac was similar to what Mitt Romney did at Bain? Probably not. But whenever Newt Gingrich feels threatened or upstaged, he sometimes reaches for whatever weapon comes to hand and just starts swinging. Just ask Paul Ryan.

It's a gaffe arguably on a par with Romney's already infamous $10,000 bet. But while Romney can at least try to explain away his error -- hey, who's never offered a friend an outlandishly large bet? -- there's no easy exit for Gingrich. The comments are circulating fast, and the video isn't going away. Perhaps he should have stuck by his pledge not to go negative. But if anybody can get away with it, it will be the field's Teflon candidate.

Image: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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