If there’s one thing the presidential race has made clear, it’s this: There’s broad bipartisan agreement that certain practices of capitalism are not above reproach. It’s not only legitimate, but desirable, to raise questions about whether certain types of profiteering, such as that practiced by Bain, are immoral, destructive and fair game for condemnation.
The big story that pulls the events of the last few weeks all together is that Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee for president, is to the right of this consensus.
Romney openly equates any criticism of his Bain conduct as putting “free enterprise on trial,” suggests his brand of capitalism is synonymous with the foundations of American life and greatness, and refuses to say whether any concerns about inequality and excessive Wall Street influence are rooted in anything but “envy.”
We now have yet another leading Republican figure taking issue with Romney on this. Here’s Sarah Palin, on Fox News last night, flatly saying that Republicans are raising legitimate questions about Romney’s Bain tenure, and that they are not attacking “free market capitalism” at all:
So let’s tally this up so far. There’s Palin. There’s Bill Kristol, who has said that “the unqualified defense of the virtues of Bain Capital” is “silly,” and has scoffed at the idea that "any behavior by a private firm” is a, “assault on capitalism.” Newt Gingrich has repeatedly drawn a distinction between Romney’s Bain’s conduct and free enterprise writ large, saying Bain’s practices “undermine capitalism.” Rick Perry has slammed enterprises like Bain as “vultures” that eat the “carcass” of victims.
Frank Luntz has counseled Republicans not to defend “capitalism,” and to stick to “economic freedom.” Writers at National Review like Michael Walsh have been sharply dismissive of Romney’s efforts to sell his Bain conduct as “job creation.” The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis recently argued: “the fact that Bain’s business practices were both legal and productive doesn’t mean they weren’t distasteful and politically toxic.”
It’s possible, of course, that some critics are motivated by a desire to destroy Romney and don’t really see anything wrong with Bain-style excessive capitalism. But that reinforces the point. Their belief that such an argument could carry weight among GOP primary voters again underscores that there’s bipartisan agreement that certain practices of capitalism do constitute a destructive force, are not above reproach, and are not synonymous with free enterprise or with the American way. As John Harwood notes today, shifts in the political landscape have made even blue collar Republicans receptive to criticism of capitalism’s excesses.
Oh, sure, Romney has tried to muddy his image as a complete free marketeer, throwing a few bones to working class GOPers with tough talk about “crony capitalism” and cracking down on China. But the bottom line is that at a time of rising public anxiety about inequality and undue Wall Street influence, the GOP is on the verge of nominating someone who is to the extreme right of even some leading Republicans on the morality and practicality of unfettered profit-driven free market excess. That’s the big story here.