"I'm a business guy," Mitt Romney likes to say. He hardly needs to. He so exudes corporate prowess, he could wear a tiny corner office as a lapel pin. For months, "I'm a business guy" has been the mantra of his campaign: It meant he understands the economy and has been in charge.
Now, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, his rivals would like to make that phrase poison in his mouth. Instead of a successful businessman who can help create jobs and improve lives, they are painting Romney as a ruthless Wall Street home wrecker. "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?" Newt Gingrich asked Monday. "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."
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.
Gingrich had been harsh weeks ago when he challenged Romney to give back the money "from bankrupting companies over his years at Bain." But that attack went fallow until Sunday's debate, when Gingrich raised the issue again. His super-PAC has released a long video portraying Romney as a corporate raider motivated by greed, who used companies for a profit and then let them fail, indifferent to the human wreckage that caused. "That was a man that destroyed us," says one laid-off worker in the film.
Romney said he was surprised to see his Republican rivals "put free enterprise on trial." The surprise showed in his tone-deaf response. After the debate he talked at a town hall about how he had feared a pink slip, something that may very well have been true when he was younger but is so at odds with his current posture that he should have known better than to say it.
Monday, in a discussion about changing insurance companies, he said "who provide services to me."
Jon Huntsman said Romney "enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs."
Rick Perry said Romney was "getting rich off of failure and sticking it to someone else." Perry said Romney was worried about pink slips because he was afraid he might run out of them (a great line that challenges my theory that the GOP campaign has been humor-free).
Primaries warp parties. Bill Clinton, who was called the first black president, was accused of racism. Now Republicans are punishing private-sector success.
Will any of this undermine Romney's strong position? There could be a backlash against his critics from conservatives irritated by the attack on competition and free enterprise. But if he keeps talking about pink slips and firing people, this could become a problem.
He is also not very good about offering anecdotes about his struggling years or the good things that came from his years building up companies. The 90,000 people employed by Staples, a company he helped start, is a good start, but Romney is going to have to find a way to wriggle out of this caricature. (Not wearing a tie isn't enough.)
Huntsman campaign manager John Weaver said Romney's response to the criticism was so gaffe-laden and tone-deaf, the candidate resembled John Kerry, which makes him unelectable. What's surely true is that he'll face more attacks like this if he qualifies for the general election.
In that sense he should thank his rivals for giving him the chance to practice. If he were stumbling against Obama in the fall, he might never have a chance to recover.