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January 10, 2012 10:35 AM Fighting on Democrats’ turf

By Steve Benen

Take a guess who said this yesterday: “Voters are just now meeting the Real Romney — the buyout tycoon who executed takeovers, bankrupted businesses, and sent jobs overseas while killing American jobs.”

MoveOn.org? No, it was Rick Perry.

Let’s try another one: “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money? I do draw a distinction between looting a company, leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods, and then leaving a factory that should be there.”

Bernie Sanders? No, it was Newt Gingrich.

Just over the last few days, Republicans targeting Mitt Romney have decided to go all in, going after the frontrunner’s career as a vulture capitalist — the guy who got rich orchestrating leveraged buyouts and laying off thousands of American workers. As John Dickerson noted, Romney’s GOP rivals are, whether they care to admit it or not, validating the larger Democratic line against Romney.

These attacks may help Romney’s primary challengers, and they will certainly soften up Mitt Romney for the general election. Importantly, they give credibility to an entire line of Democratic argument about income inequality and the destructive force of commerce. Before, Republican candidates could label those who would manage the excesses of the economy as socialists. The GOP critique of Romney ratifies the Democratic idea that the free market can breed excesses.

None of Romney’s rivals would admit they’re saying that, but when you pile on this completely and in such blunt terms you are embracing the anti-corporate energy that has always been behind the Democratic attack. When Barack Obama talks about the excesses of Wall Street, conservatives say he is punishing success. If so, then Romney’s rivals are doing the same thing.

Ed Kilgore had a similar item, noting that the GOP field is, in its quest to stop Romney, undermining “a central element of conservative ideology” and creating “a pretty good foundation for Democrats to build on.”

I’d take this just a bit further and ask a related question: why are so many Republican presidential candidates taking this line? Obviously because they think it’ll be effective, but do they believe that?

Romney has tried to argue that critics of his private-sector layoffs are borderline communists, trying to “put free enterprise on trial.” And yet, when there is no difference whatsoever between the message Dems are pushing and the attacks from Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman, it suggests the Romney line is a bust.

But more importantly, it also suggests the progressive line is what resonates with voters — even Republican voters. After all, it’s likely Perry, Gingrich, and Huntsman relied on polls and focus groups to identify the most potent message, and they all quickly found that this is the criticism that resonates.

For all the talk about this being a center-right nation, there’s a realization that Americans are uncomfortable with excessive greed and the kind of ruthless, screw-the-workers style of capitalism Romney used to get rich. If this discomfort didn’t exist, we wouldn’t see conservative Republican candidates using the argument to make appeals to conservative Republican voters.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • DAY on January 10, 2012 10:45 AM:

    This is such a train wreck of a campaign that the GOP media is forced to call attention to a three year old Halloween party!

  • Steve M. on January 10, 2012 10:48 AM:

    Iíd take this just a bit further and ask a related question: why are so many Republican presidential candidates taking this line? Obviously because they think itíll be effective, but do they believe that?

    Gingrich is doing it because he has no more of an ideological core than Romney. Perry is doing it because hating "Yankee bankers" is a vestigial element of Southern right-wing politics. And both of them are doing it because they're desperate, and they're out of touch with how their party thinks, as their vote totals will soon make abundantly clear.

    I'd love for this to be effective in the primaries. It won't be. Maybe it will be effective in the general election, but Americans are remarkably lacking in class consciousness.

  • c u n d gulag on January 10, 2012 10:48 AM:

    Uh-oh!

    Do I spot the first crack in the Conservative and Libertarian monument that is Ayn Rand?

    I thought Galt = true American hero?

    Maybe if this keeps up, Atlas ought to quit shrugging, an' start duckin'!

    And I can't remember the last time one Republican candidate attacked another candidate from the left, can anyone?

    Was it Bush 'The Elder and Not Insane,' on St. Ronnie's "Voodoo Economics?"

  • chi res on January 10, 2012 10:51 AM:

    Iíd take this just a bit further and ask a related question: why are so many Republican presidential candidates taking this line? Obviously because they think itíll be effective, but do they believe that?

    By taking this line, republican candidates gain two benefits: 1) they use it to attack the primary frontrunner; 2) they take an arrow out of the democrats' general election quiver.

    It's actually a piece of Obama's MO: disarm your opponent by agreeing with him (at little or no cost).

  • stormskies on January 10, 2012 10:52 AM:

    It's great because you can just see Obama's campaign adds writing themselves ........

  • Rick Massimo on January 10, 2012 10:58 AM:

    So who gets to tell Newt to take a shower and get a job?

  • Danp on January 10, 2012 11:04 AM:

    they take an arrow out of the democrats' general election quiver.

    One of the few times of late when I disagree with chi res. Even Republicans see a Wall Street side that they hate. This hatred was in part fueled by Republican politicians when they talked about bank bailouts. Republican politicians don't actually want to use laws to restrict abuses, but they do concede that some individuals are evil. More and more, Romney is being defined as one of them.

  • JW on January 10, 2012 11:14 AM:

    "..the anti-corporate energy that has always been behind the Democratic attack".

    What attack(s), made by whom?

    Long overdue criticism of Romney is one thing, but it takes a Rosemary Woods-type stretch to conflate the strident language of the current attacks upon Romney with substantive attacks on Wall Street by the democratic party .

  • Dean on January 10, 2012 11:24 AM:

    I guess Newt, Perry and the rest realize, THEY ARE the 99% next to Mitt. Lets see the repubs embrace Occupy's concepts as ways to attack Mitt.

  • ET on January 10, 2012 11:28 AM:

    Many people have no idea what companies like Bain actually do. Right now to some Romney looks like a rich guy who worked in "big business" - and this is not incorrect. However, what he actually did looks/feels a little skeevy even if it isn't illegal. Facts may not matter to many but the emotion that someone gets with a little knowledge (or demagoguery) is what Newt is going for and it won't go away once the GOP primary is over.

  • dalloway on January 10, 2012 11:31 AM:

    The beauty part is that Democrats can run ads in the general election featuring Republicans slicing and dicing their own Mitt. Obama doesn't have to go negative on Mitt because Republicans already have. That and Mitt's delightful penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth make me feel better about our chances in November.

  • Josef K on January 10, 2012 11:38 AM:

    The New York Times had an editorial this morning concerning this very point.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/10/opinion/the-corporate-candidates.html?hp

    It opens with an especially relevant observation. To whit:

    The more Mitt Romney pretends to empathize with the millions of Americans who are struggling in this economy, the less he seems to understand their despair. And the rest of the Republican field seems to have no more insight into the concerns of most voters than he does.

    Hard to believe we have to endure another 11 months of this stuff.

  • low-tech cyclist on January 10, 2012 11:47 AM:

    Hell, these guys aren't just fighting on Democratic turf - they're fighting on the turf of what Howard Dean used to call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

    Maybe there's a lesson here for Democratic leaders: the ideas the progressive wing has been pushing have far more resonance with voters than whatever crap people like Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, and Ben Nelson push.

  • tomb on January 10, 2012 11:59 AM:

    Of course it was politically convenient for Republicans to talk about a health care mandate at one time, so I wouldn't take their "progressive" words very seriously (although I'm glad to hear them say it). Their "policy" positions are almost all just manufactured political positions. (But everyone here already knows that!)

  • chi res on January 10, 2012 12:04 PM:

    One of the few times of late when I disagree with chi res.

    I could have been more clear: If any of the candidates who are attacking Romney become the republican nominee, their current comments will help deflect "republicans are greedy bastards" attacks from democrats in the general election. A big "if", I know, but I was suggesting their (Gingrich, Perry, Huntsman) strategic thinking as candidates for the nomination.

    I don't for a second think that any of them actually believe what they're saying.

  • SadOldVet on January 10, 2012 12:05 PM:

    re low-tech cyclist...

    Amen, amen, amen...

    I am so f*cking tired of the dumbocrap party (especially here in Indiana) putting DINO, repuke-lites on the ballots as democrats and then believing that they lost because they were not republican enough!

  • MCA on January 10, 2012 12:22 PM:

    @ET - right on. So few people have any real idea what investment banking and private equity even are that they don't see any difference in the fortunes made by people in those fields and the fortune of Steve Jobs or the guy who invented a better paper clip and built a company to manufacture it. Any messaging that can chip away at the ignorance of the difference hurts Romeny. In the blackjack game of the economy, Bain is the house - they never lose, they just make fees off the gambling of other peoples' money. There's a point and value in the broader economy to p.e. and i-banking, certainly, in terms of facilitating the movement of capital. But if someone's able to effectively shine a light on the profitability of those industries compared to the real value of the service they provide, it won't go well for Romney. Gingrich, of all people, is the first one to articulate something along those lines.

  • N.Wells on January 10, 2012 12:49 PM:

    I was listening to those quotes on NPR this morning, along with most of the Not-Romneys raising expectations for today's NH results, and not only was I flummoxed that people like Gingerich were raising lefty complaints very similar to what I say to people, but I was also mystified about why they are suddenly deciding to go on the attack now. If Santorum or Perry or Newt had been doing this all week and during the first NH debate, they could perhaps have gained some traction, but all they are doing at this point would seem to be making Mitt look more like a victor when he wins. I.e., headlines will say stuff like 'Voters reject Gingerich's arguments' or 'Romney wins despite despite last-minute attacks', as opposed to 'X comes in #2 and heads to SC with momentum'.

    (Incidentally, as an illustration of how quickly expectations set in and become boring, last week the reporter at a local station announced the Iowa results, in full and in a rather bored tone, as 'As expected, Romney came in as #1, and Santorum was second. In other news .......'. Face-palm.)

  • Kane on January 10, 2012 12:57 PM:

    Take away the core argument of the Romney candidacy that he was a successful businessma≠n, and all that remains is a failed one-term governor.

  • Poly on January 10, 2012 1:06 PM:

    Romney was laying the ground work of portraying any criticism of his work at Bain as an attack on capitalism itself. And when President Obama speaks of economic fairness and opportunit≠y for all, Romney was portraying it as Obama seeking a European-s≠tyle welfare state to redistribu≠te wealth and create equal outcomes regardless of individual effort and success.

    And for the most part, the media was going along with it. After all, this was to be the narrative for 2012; Romney, the successful businessman, the defender of capitalism vs President Obama and populism. But what the media, the Romney campaign, or anyone else didn't expect was that Romney's GOP rivals would attack him with populist arguments.

    It's one thing for those on the left to make populist arguments against Romney, but it's another thing altogether to have those arguments made from those on the right.

  • zandru on January 10, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Wow. Just Wow.

    If this continues, the President can run on the slogan "Elect the REAL Democrat."

    The Repubs have gone so far to the right, they've wrapped around and are coming in from the left! Maybe this will push Democrats away from the center-right and into a more leftward position, too, if they happen to notice voters responding to FDR-type arguments.

    Maybe we ought to remind them...

  • grape_crush on January 10, 2012 1:18 PM:

    I'm thinking that the potency of this attack (on this subject) will actually decrease in the general election, making it near-useless to Dems.

    Right now it's a fresh story for journos to follow. In six months, it will be old news barely worth mentioning. All this drama now will serve as a means of inoculating Romney against getting dinged later with more of the same charges.

  • g on January 10, 2012 1:58 PM:

    One wonders if any of the candidates have thought this through - supposing these kind of attacks caused one of them to win and become the nominee.

    Haven't they painted themselves into a rhetorical corner? How can they accuse President Obama of "soshulizim" after this?

    Or are they simply planning to rely on the short attention span of the public, as they spin in the wind?

  • Wally on January 10, 2012 2:19 PM:

    @ Grape, Chi res and others saying this issue won't help in the General. Your points are well taken, but if for once, the Dismalcrats decided to stay on message and just keep pounding the point in ads, it will still be in the voters conciousness even if the media want to talk about Chicago corruption or birth certificates or whatever.

    All you need is a bit of truth - Gore is a prevaricator/Romney is a fat cat - and a sentence - I voted for it before I voted against it/I like firing people - and voila! you have a focused ad campaign to relentlessly pound the candidate. But Dismalscrats consultants want new ads for new revenue so the DNC will probably move on to Keep Hope Alive or something.

  • SadOldVet on January 10, 2012 2:43 PM:

    Thanks Wally...

    for adding "dismalcrats" to my vocabulary.

    There are times when that is more accurate than dumbocrats or dumbocraps!

  • kth on January 10, 2012 3:39 PM:

    Of course the contradiction is a howler, but your conclusion is misplaced. Fact is, rank and file conservatives have generally cared very little one way or the other about free enterprise. Conservatism is white Christian cultural nationalism first and last. Scratch anything conservatives really care about (welfare, immigration), and you'll find some manner of racist/nativist/homophobic fear and loathing at the core.

  • Doug on January 10, 2012 5:57 PM:

    SOV, if it helps any (it probably won't), I always look it as if the Democrats and Republicans here in Indiana are still in the late 19th century, when very little differentiated the two parties in matters of actual policy.
    As to WHY that is, I have no idea. Perhaps it's because Indiana has been more evenly divided between rural and urban populations than most other industrialized states? Except for Gary, most of the industry in this state seems to be fairly well-spread out with a factory here, another there and no city, except Kokomo, being dominated by a single industry.
    It gives the impression that we're much more rural than we really are and helps the small-town, rural conservatives hold onto their influence. That and re-districting, of course...
    Whatever the reason is, it's damned frustrating!

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