Newt Gingrich — the friend of his detractors, to whom he offers serial vindications — provided on Monday redundant evidence for the proposition that he is the least conservative candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination: He faulted Mitt Romney for committing acts of capitalism.
Gingrich did so when goaded by Romney regarding his, Gingrich’s, self-described service as a “historian” for Freddie Mac, which paid him more handsomely than anyone paid Herodotus. Romney was asked by an interviewer about the $1.6 million Gingrich earned, or at any rate received, from Freddie Mac, the misbegotten government-backed mortgage giant. In the service of Washington’s bipartisan certitude that too few people owned houses, Freddie Mac helped produce the housing bubble and subsequent crash. It did so even though it paid Gingrich $30,000 an hour. That is about what he received if, as he says, he worked for Freddie Mac about an hour a month, telling it that what it was doing was “insane.”
Anyway, Romney’s interviewer mischievously asked him if he thought Gingrich should “give that money back” to Freddie Mac. Romney said, “I sure do.”
Soon thereafter, Gingrich, when asked about Romney’s cheeky judgment, replied: “I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain Capital, that I would be glad to listen to him.”
This departure from his pledge that his campaign “will be relentlessly positive” represents the virtue of recycling applied to politics. Gingrich is reusing the attack honed by Ted Kennedy in 1994, when Romney suffered a 17-point loss in attempting to take Kennedy’s Senate seat.
The Kennedy-Gingrich doctrine is this: What the economist Joseph Schumpeter called capitalism’s “creative destruction” is not really creative. Rather, it is lamentable and, when facilitated by capitalists, reprehensible. For Kennedy, this made sense: Reactionary liberalism holds that whatever is, from Social Security to farm subsidies to the Chrysler Corp., should forever be. But Gingrich is supposedly our infallible guide to the sunny uplands of a dynamic future.
Gingrich has three verbal tics which, taken together — and they usually come in clumps — signal his depth and seriousness. Deploying his three F words, he announces his unique candor by prefacing this or that pronouncement with the word “frankly.” What he frankly says is that “fundamental” change is necessary for America. He knows this because he sees over the horizon, into a “future” requiring “transformational” (Gingrich’s self-description) leadership.
Romney, while at Bain, performed the essential social function of connecting investment resources with opportunities. Firms such as Bain are indispensable for wealth creation, which often involves taking over badly run companies, shedding dead weight and thereby liberating remaining elements that add value. The process, like surgery, can be lifesaving. And like surgery, society would rather benefit from it than watch it.
Romney surely anticipated that such an attack would come — but from Democrats, in the general election, not from a volatile Republican. He now understands Rep. Paul Ryan’s response when Gingrich attacked his entitlement reform as “right-wing social engineering.” Said Ryan: “With allies like that, who needs the left?”
Intra-party competitions are supposed to reveal candidates’ potential susceptibilities to attacks. Two unfair attacks against Romney concern his polish and his past. Four years ago, Mike Huckabee, targeting Romney without mentioning him, slyly said, “I want to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.” And there is a photograph of Romney that will eventually be seen far and wide (and can be seen at http://wapo.st/romneybain). It shows a young Romney and six Bain colleagues feeling their oats, with paper currency protruding from their dark suits. The young men are overflowing with what John Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits.”
We should welcome such spirits and should hope for political leadership that will hasten the day when American conditions are again receptive to them. Until then, economic dynamism will not return. We should not expect Gingrich to understand this until he understands that his work for Freddie Mac was not, as he laughably insists, in “the private sector.”
He probably believes that. He seems to believe there is always some higher synthesis, inaccessible to lesser intellects, that makes all his contradictions disappear. One awaits the synthesizing of his multicity tour in 2009 with Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, and Al Sharpton promoting “a common education reform” of primary and secondary schools.
(Disclosure: This columnist’s wife, Mari Will, is an adviser to another Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.)