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Newt Gingrich’s recent (and apparently brief) flirtation with attacking Mitt Romney for his time at Bain Capital is already being discussed in traditional election year terms. Some on the right are spinning it as a benefit to Romney because it will inoculate him against those attacks in the general election. Conventional wisdom fonts like Joe Klein are making similar noises (via) as well.
The thinking goes like this: There’s some bad bit of news about a candidate out there. Ideally it stays buried and no one ever talks about it. But if it’s going to come out, better that it comes out early; that way the candidate can address it when there is a smaller audience than in September or October. It also gives the candidate the chance to develop a politically effective canned response, usually ending with something like “this is old news, we’ve already discussed it extensively, and only a desperate campaign or an irresponsible news outlet would keep flogging this dead horse.”
That works best with something like a personal frailty or a relatively minor but inconvenient political position. In Gingrich’s case, reconciling his multiple divorces with the moral expectations of GOP primary voters is an example. It looks bad, so he goes on TV with a televangelist and says he cheated a lot because of his boundless passion for America, problem solved. Sure his opponents might bring it up again, but he can say he’s already covered it, pivot and counterattack them for being craven opportunists. Textbook political strategy.
There are some cases where the textbook gets thrown out the window, though. Not all political missteps can be dismissed with a little boilerplate on the hustings. Some votes are iconic; just ask Bob Bennett or Hillary Clinton. A big enough vote - a vote on something that has lasting impact or that touches on something considered of fundamental importance - can become very firmly attached to a candidate and resist all attempts to shake it off.
Romney’s career at Bain is more like that than it is some minor gaffe. Libby Spencer thinks it’s a line of attack that will stay relevant through election day, and I agree with her. (More from Libby here.) It will remain fresh because Romney’s tenure at Bain literally personifies exactly the kind of soulless and greedy big money capitalism that has increasingly suffocated communities around the country.
One of the great domestic anxieties of the last few decades for most Americans is the specter of some high finance vampires swooping in, extracting the lifeblood of a perfectly good company, and leaving some dangerously weakened remnant to fend for itself. For an awful lot of people that is the central economic narrative of our time; anyone who thinks it will go away because some candidate mouthed some words about it is crazy.
And of course, it also won’t go away because Mitt Romney is Mitt Romney. His entire life has been so thoroughly steeped in wealth and privilege that he cannot speak off the cuff for very long without saying something that reveals just how wildly, offensively out of touch he is with the lives of citizens he aspires to lead. Even if he would like to put the subject behind him, all a reporter needs to do is stick a microphone in front of him and say “Mitt, say some stuff.” You don’t need to do much digging to get some gold from that one. (I could save the old boy a fortune in consulting fees. My plan: Have someone type up a long list of bland talking points, put them in a three ring binder, and hand it to him with a note reading “you may recite any of the enclosed verbatim during a debate. In all other circumstances keep your mouth shut.”)
Now, the attacks may go away or soften for other reasons. In noting the milder attacks coming from Democrats mistermix wrote Gingrich is “putting Bain in the same boat as the rest of the hated Wall Streeters who almost took this country to ruin and haven’t been punished for their actions.” But the president has actually outraised Romney at Bain, and if 2008 is any indication he will once again receive lavish funding from the likes of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley. So if the president decides to lump Bain in with Wall Street that might mean taking it easier on them. But that isn’t relevant to whether Romney is somehow protected from those attacks by virtue of facing them now. It’s still a hell of a punch, a haymaker, should someone want to throw it.