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 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 on 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, a trailer is out. It tries hard to make a nuanced point: that capitalism isn't evil, but that private-equity profiteering is. Here's a chunk of the narration in the trailer, by way of 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," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said 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 Gov. 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 on Tuesday morning as New Hampshire went to the polls.
Romney, meanwhile, has been doing the worst possible job fending off the attacks. Even though his Bain record has been public for years, and even though he's known for months that his opponents (Democrats, he expected) would hammer home the "corporate raider" tag, he has been caught flat-footed. Even would-be defenders like Pethokoukis are puzzled. Somehow managing to make things worse, Romney said on Monday, "I like being able to fire people." Yes, it was out of context, but it doesn't matter: The comment was tone-deaf at any time and worse in the midst of the Bain maelstrom. Indeed, Romney's numbers in New Hampshire have faltered in recent days, suggesting that the attacks may be softening him.
Romney, Gingrich, and now Perry: They all come out of this fight looking bad. Democrats are delighted -- they're quietly pushing the same line, but are more than happy to let GOP dollars tear down GOP candidates. But the other big winners are Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. Santorum has piously defended Romney ("this is capitalism"). Huntsman has attacked, but gingerly, spinning a jibe against his rival into a plus for him: "Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs." His campaign considered then passed on the anti-Romney documentary. Ron Paul has stayed quiet. In New Hampshire, the race for second place is between Paul and a surging Huntsman, and the two are benefiting from Romney's new softness while keeping their hands mostly clean. As for Gingrich, his Bain gambit may not make much political sense -- but as revenge, it's working nicely.