How Gingrich's Attack on Romney and Bain Backfired, Part II

Conservatives still view his tack as despicable and practically socialist, but with Rick Perry's help, he's starting to hurt Mitt Romney.

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In mid-December, when Newt Gingrich attacked Mitt Romney for profiteering off the backs of fired workers during his time at Bain Capital, it seemed like a suicidal move. With his poll numbers falling steadily, the former Speaker seemed to be panicking, but going after Romney's private-sector experience was an unwise move -- one that managed to alienate both the party's activist wing, outraged that he was attacking a good red-blooded capitalist; and the party establishment, which saw in Gingrich the same loose cannon it had always seen.

The attack failed to arrest Gingrich's poll slide, in part because of exactly the reasons above. But a funny thing happened between then and now: it's become clear that Gingrich is willing to turn his suicide play into a political murder-suicide, bringing down the front-runner even if it doesn't sweep Gingrich back into the lead. In an exceptionally bitter speech after coming in a disappointing fourth in the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich effectively declared war, saying he "reserve[d] the right to tell the truth" and lavishing praise on everyone in the race except Romney.

Gingrich hasn't let up since. What was apparently a throwaway line in December has become January's primary line of attack on the stump and in advertisements in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Rick Perry, after an even more disappointing finish in Iowa than Gingrich, has joined in the assault. "There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business and I happen to think that's indefensible," Perry said Monday. "If you're a victim of Bain Capital's downsizing, it's the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina and tell you he feels your pain, because he caused it." Meanwhile, a super PAC backing Gingrich paid $40,000 for a half-hour long documentary about Romney's Bain days that hits the same note, and although the full film hasn't been released yet, there's a trailer out. It tries hard to make a nuanced point: that capitalism isn't evil, but that it private-equity profiteering is. Here's a chunk of the narration in the trailer, via James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute:

Capitalism made America great. Free markets. Innovation. The building blocks of the American dream. But in the wrong hands, some of those dreams can turn into nightmares. Wall Street's corporate raiders made billions of dollars. Their greed was only matched by their willingness to make million in profits - nothing spared, nothing mattered but greed. This film is about one such raider and his firm. Mitt Romney became the CEO of Bain Capital the day the company was formed. His mission: to reap massive rewards for himself and his investors.

The people who were outraged by Gingrich's first salvo aren't buying the hairsplitting. The conservative Club for Growth, for one, is furious:

"Newt Gingrich's attacks on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital are disgusting," said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola in a statement. "There are a number of issues for Mitt Romney's Republican opponents to attack him for, but attacking him for making investments in companies to create a profit for his investors is just wrong. Because of the efforts of Bain Capital, major companies like Staples, Domino's Pizza, and the Sports Authority now employ thousands of people and have created billions in wealth in the private economy. Attacking Governor Romney for participating in free-market capitalism is just beyond the pale for any purported 'Reagan Conservative.' Newt Gingrich should stop his attacks on free markets and apologize to Governor Romney for them."

Conn Carroll of the conservative Washington Examiner put it more simply: "So Newt Gingrich is running as a socialist now?" It's no secret that Tea Party types remain unhappy about Romney and want an alternative, but Gingrich is fast ruling himself out as a desirable replacement by alienating the likes of the Club for Growth. Undeterred, unaware, or simply too determined to bring down Romney to care, Gingrich again reprised his points Tuesday morning as New Hampshire went to the polls.

Presented by

David A. 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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