The Republican death wish is back. It’s the habit of Republicans to do something crazy or stupid that diminishes their election prospects. Think of Watergate in the 1970s. In the 2006 midterm elections, the disclosure of Florida congressman Mark Foley’s flirtation with Capitol pages turned a defeat into a landslide loss. A few unelectable candidates denied Republicans a shot at winning the Senate in 2010.
Here we go again. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, with their attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital, have gone far toward poisoning the well for Republicans this year—and not only in the contest against President Obama. The endless TV debates have trivialized the race for the Republican nomination. And maladroit moves by congressional Republicans have let Obama pose as a born-again tax cutter.
The result is that Republicans are less well off in 2012 than they would otherwise be. Maybe they’ll recover. Perhaps Obama’s subpar performance in the White House is so palpable that nothing could override it as the dominant factor in the politics of 2012.
But for now, Republicans have reason to worry. Thanks to Gingrich and company, Democrats have been handed a gift that’s likely to keep on giving all year. Their attacks on Romney as a ruthless, uncaring businessman play into Obama’s reelection theme that the rich are the source of America’s economic trouble. Perry calls Romney a “vulture capitalist,” a tag certain to stick in the minds of voters.
Because of his campaign strategy, Romney has all but encouraged opponents to go after his career at Bain Capital from 1984 to 1999. As Republican consultant Jeffrey Bell has pointed out, presidential candidates need a big idea. Ronald Reagan had two or three. Romney’s idea for restoring good times to America isn’t a policy or program or innovation. It’s himself. His performance at Bain demonstrates he has the know-how and experience to create economic growth and jobs. That’s his calling card.
As a private equity firm, Bain buys struggling companies, overhauls them, and sells them at a hefty profit. Only sometimes, the Bain treatment fails, a company is liquidated, and jobs are lost. These cases are the basis of left-wing attacks on Bain and private equity firms in general and, more broadly, on free market capitalism.
Gingrich, Perry, and to a lesser extent Jon Huntsman have adopted the left-wing critique and accused Romney of purposely looting and bankrupting companies and making millions in the process. Romney has long expected Obama to launch such an attack, but not his fellow Republicans.
The consequences could be extremely damaging for Republicans. Consultant Frank Luntz fears the charge will not only harm Romney’s chances of winning the presidency, assuming he’s the GOP nominee, but also corrode the Republican brand and weaken Republicans in Senate and House races.
That may be the worst case scenario, but it’s plausible. The Bain issue was exploited successfully, though unfairly, against Romney once before—in 1994 when he tried to capture Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat. Kennedy ran ads featuring workers laid off from a company Bain had shuttered. The ads worked. True, that was in the liberal oasis of Massachusetts, and they might not do as well for Obama in swing states this fall.
As for all the nationally televised debates, they aren’t a huge problem. But they’ve soaked up time that candidates could have better used to build strong rationales for their election. A few debates would be fine, one each, say, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. But over two dozen? That’s made them a distraction. And while Obama has gotten off scot-free, the candidates have often looked like squabbling children.
If anyone is to blame, it’s the candidates for dutifully showing up. Neither the sponsors nor the media questioners are at fault. They’re doing their job. The debates have gotten impressive ratings, and the questioners have enlivened the two-hour sessions by spurring conflict, which usually puts the candidates in an unfavorable light. This is how moderator David Gregory began the questioning in an NBC debate last week: “Speaker Gingrich, why shouldn’t Governor Romney be the nominee of this party? What about his record concerns you most or makes him disqualified to be the nominee?”
Meanwhile, one might have thought it would be impossible, or at least less than credible, for Obama to pretend to be a tax cutter. Yet he’s managed that with assistance from the media. When congressional Republicans were at odds on whether to extend the payroll tax holiday for 2 months or 12 months, the White House acted as if Republicans opposed the tax cut altogether. The press was happy to promote this false idea.
Earlier, Republicans learned the hard way that nothing good comes from negotiating on taxes and spending with Obama or Democrats. Talks last summer were manipulated by the president so he’d be remembered for proposing a “grand bargain” to tame the deficit and House Speaker John Boehner for walking out.
The supercommittee talks were no better. In his September speech to Congress, Obama cast Republicans as obstructionists and thus foils in his reelection campaign. Given this, Democrats weren’t about to agree with Republicans on $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Any accommodation with Republicans would undermine Obama. Republicans were left to deal with the alternative of a mandatory $600 billion cut in defense spending.
Obama’s strategy now “appears to consist of creating populist confrontations with Congress and then complaining that Washington is broken because Republicans won’t let the president have his way,” writes Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. That won’t help Obama, though, since it suggests that, even with the Senate in Democratic hands, he can’t get things done.
But it doesn’t have to help so long as it hurts Republicans. Obama’s strategy is like the old joke about two hikers confronted by an angry bear. “We’d better run for it,” one says. “Don’t you know you can’t outrun a bear?” the other says. “I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the first hiker says. “I only have to outrun you.”
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.