There’s a lot of silliness on all sides of the Bain Capital debate.
On the one hand, Newt Gingrich’s attacks (and the follow-on assaults by Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry) on Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital have been unfair, over the top, and, for that matter, all over the place. Gingrich, Perry, and Huntsman deserve much of the criticism they’ve received from conservative commentators.
On the other, Mitt Romney’s claim throughout his campaign that his private sector experience almost uniquely qualifies him to be president is also silly. Does he really think that having done well in private equity, venture capital, and business consulting—or even in the private sector more broadly—is a self-evident qualification for public office? One assumes Mitt Romney would agree that Chris Christie is a better chief executive of New Jersey than Jon Corzine, and that Rudy Giuliani was a better mayor of New York than Mike Bloomberg. But Romney’s biography looks a lot more like Bloomberg's or Corzine's (leaving aside Corzine's recent misadventures) than like that of Giuliani (pre-mayoralty) or Christie. Past business success does not guarantee performance in public office. Indeed, Romney sometimes seems to go so far as to suggest that succeeding in the private sector is intrinsically more admirable than, e.g., serving as a teacher or a soldier or even in Congress. This is not a sensible proposition, or a defensible one.
And the unqualified defense of the virtues of Bain Capital by some on the right is also silly. Criticism of any behavior by a private firm? Outrage! An Assault on Capitalism! Haven't they read Schumpeter? Don't they know the glories of Creative Destruction? And, of course, all such destruction must be assumed to be creative!
Yikes. If this is where some in the conservative movement and the Republican party are inclined to go—four cheers for finance capitalism!—good luck. Indeed, it’s useful to flush out this tendency now, and subject it to debate. Because it’s a recipe for political disaster—and intellectual sterility.
Post 2008, capitalism needs its strong defenders—but its defenders need also to be its constructive critics. The Tea Party was right. What's needed is a critique of Big Government above all, but also of Big Business and Big Finance and Big Labor (and Big Education and Big Media and all the rest)—and especially a critique of all those occasions when one or more of these institutions conspire against the common good. What's needed is a willingness to put Main Street (at least slightly) ahead of Wall Street, and a reform agenda for capitalism that strengthens it, alongside an even more dramatic reform agenda for government that limits it.
Bain Capital shouldn’t be demonized. It may not even deserve to be criticized. But in laying out a way forward, conservatives might remember that Bain Capital isn’t capitalism, that capitalism by itself isn’t freedom, and that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the Gospel of Wealth.