Video of the Day: James Clyburn Accuses Romney of 'Raping Companies'

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The South Carolina representative's unmitigated, inflammatory attack on the private-equity industry breaks ranks with Obama.

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Here's a good example of the sort of political attack that Cory Booker referred to as "nauseating" during a much-ballyhooed Meet the Press appearance on Sunday:

This is not [an] attack on free enterprise ... I don't take contributions from payday lenders, if I know it. I refuse to do that. That's free enterprise, but there's something about that enterprise that I have a problem with. And there's something about raping companies and leaving them in debt and setting up Swiss bank accounts and corporate businesses in the Grand Caymans. I have a real, serious problem with that.

That's South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House (the comment comes around 2:45 of the video above). Clyburn's outburst is notable for two reasons. First, it's an extremely inflammatory attack, the sort of nasty discourse that tends to distract from real issues. And second, Clyburn is rejecting the argument advanced by Obama (and Booker). They argue that private equity itself is not on trial, and that the question is whether Romney's record in the sector makes him qualified to be president. Clyburn, on the other hand, is clearly attacking private equity per se.

We all know how this will end: Romney's campaign will condemn it, Obama's team will follow suit, and Clyburn will probably offer a minimally sincere apology. (The South Carolinian is no stranger to controversial remarks.)

Though this resembles the standard one-day kerfuffles that have characterized the campaign, there's an interesting background to it: the generational divide between black politicians in the Democratic Party. On one side are older, hardball-playing populists like Clyburn (b. 1940) and Ron Rice (b. 1945), the man who lost to Booker in the 2006 Newark mayoral race and crowed with "I told you sos" Monday, accusing the man who beat him of being beholden to corporate interests. On the other are younger politicians like Booker (b. 1969), who don't fall into the same populist mold and are often accused of being smug by their elders. Obama (b. 1961) himself has encountered this divide, most notably in his losing House campaign against elder statesman Bobby Rush (b. 1946) in 2000. Residual tension emerged again in 2008, when Jesse Jackson memorably expressed a desire to castrate the candidate for "talking down to black people."

Now, as he often does, Obama is seeking to split the difference, pledging to keep hammering Romney on his business career while saying he's not attacking the private equity industry. That may or may not work for him, but the generational divide will only widen over time.

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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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