Gingrich chickens out on Romney/Bain, but "Armageddon" still on the way in South Carolina
What is it with Newt? For all his bluster, when push comes to shove, as they say, he backs down and collapses like a house of cards. We saw this when he referred to GOP wunderkind Paul Ryan's "radical" budget plan as "right-wing social engineering" and then, humbled and humiliated, came crawling back. And we're seeing it now as he's retreating from his recent comments about Mitt Romney's job-destroying tenure at Bain Capital:
Newt Gingrich signaled Wednesday that he believes his criticism of Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital is a mistake — and that he’s created an impression that he was echoing Democratic rhetoric.
Gingrich conceded the problem when pressed by a Rick Santorum supporter at a book signing here Wednesday.
"I'm here to implore one thing of you. I think you've missed the target on the way you're addressing Romney's weaknesses. I want to beg you to redirect and go after his obvious disingenuousness about his conservatism and lay off the corporatist versus the free market. I think it's nuanced," said Dean Glossop, an Army Reservist from Inman, S.C.
"I agree with you," Gingrich said. "It's an impossible theme to talk about with Obama in the background. Obama just makes it impossible to talk rationally in that area because he is so deeply into class warfare that automatically you get an echo effect... I agree with you entirely.
The anti-Obama comment is ridiculous, of course. Obama has proven to be a middle-of-the-road technocrat, not a class warrior, and indeed a great deal of what he's done so far has been about rescuing capitalism from itself and otherwise trying to relieve some of the excesses around the edges. As for the rest of his response, Gingrich may just have been unwilling to be as blunt as he usually is when challenged face-to-face. But his point was never about corporatism or the free market, as if those two absolutes are the only options. Rather, it was about ethical capitalism (to the extent capitalism can ever really be called ethical) or unethical "vulture" capitalism (making money at all cost with no regard for the consequences).
But it's not clear how far he's willing to do, in either direction, and Newt seems to want to have it both ways. On the one hand, he doesn't want to come across as anti-capitalist, which is how anyone who dares say a bad word about capitalism comes across to conservatives, not least because he still has a highly profitable future as a leading conservative public figure but also because going too far could lose him valuable conservative support in South Carolina and, should he stay in the race, beyond. On the other hand, he sees a huge opening and wants to bring down Romney, whom he seems to loathe for both personal and political / partisan / ideological reasons. So what to do? Well, play both ends, in the typical Newt way, and try to shift the debate away from capitalism generally, which is where it's gone, and more towards Romney personally. Hence this, from a Gingrich spokesman:
This issue at hand is neither about Bain Capital, private equity firms, nor about capitalism. It is about Mitt Romney's judgment and character. It was Governor Romney's decision to base his candidacy, in large part, on his background as a portfolio manager. Thus, it is entirely legitimate to ask questions about whether he is accurately presenting how he conducted himself during that career.
In a broad sense, it's still about Bain Capital, private equity firms, and capitalism, of course. But that won't work, because Republicans have generally recoiled in horror at Gingrich's (and Huntsman's and Perry's) populist attack on "vulture" capitalism. So it has to be about Romney, about his "judgment and character," about his specific role at Bain, about what he did there, about the consequences. No matter that all he did there was act like (and profit like) the sort of capitalist Republicans hold in high regard -- which is why Santorum, who certainly has no great love for Romney, is arguing that an attack on Romney/Bain is an attack on capitalism.
All of which is to say, Newt, who is running neck-and-neck with Romney and who has only this shot left to save his campaign, has to walk a very fine line here. And while he appears to be retreating from the Bain line of attack, he also appears to be broadening his overall line of attack on Romney with a clear message that he hopes will resonate with a Republican electorate in South Carolina that is far more conservative than the one in New Hampshire:
"This is going to be Armageddon – they are going to come in here with everything they've got, every surrogate, every ad, every negative attack," Gingrich said. "At the same time we'll be drawing a sharp contrast between a Georgia Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate who's pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro-tax increase, pro-liberal judge, and the voters of South Carolina will have to look and decide."
Gingrich framed the attacks on the former Massachusetts governor as a gauntlet any candidate must face if they expect to succeed against President Barack Obama.
"The last thing you want is to nominate somebody who collapses in September because they can't answer the questions," Gingrich said. "I mean, so you better answer - you know, people want to attack me for my past, that's fine. I either will answer it and be ready to be the nominee or I won't. Romney ought to have to meet the same test."
Gingrich, who has sparred with Romney frequently at debates, said he had no personal opinion of his opponent.
"No, I have no view," Gingrich said when asked his personal judgment of Romney.
Really? No view? But I thought this was now all about Romney's "judgment and character." (Again, we see that Newt wants to have it both ways. The lesson is to question the honesty of everything Newt says. Always.) Regardless, it's finally happening. After months of the non- and anti-Romneys turning their guns on each other, Newt at least is taking the fight straight to Romney and saying, assuming he follows through on this (which may not be a safe assumption given his tendency to chicken out), what many, if not most, conservatives, and hence most Republicans, think of their current frontrunner.