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GOP Elite Suddenly Terrified That Romney's Bain Capital History May Be A Liability

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Back in 2008, Mitt Romney had some widely-known liabilities -- his lifetime of politically expedient flip-flopping topping a list that included "might be a Replicant" -- along with some well-regarded assets. Chief among the assets were the conception and implementation of the Commonwealth Care health care reform bill in Massachusetts and a long, successful private sector career as the founder of Bain Capital. Four years ago, those assets more than offset the liabilities among Republicans who looked with approval upon his bid for the White House. Romney was a guy who'd go over well with Big Business and the investor class, and his health care reform was a feather in his cap -- he could be a conservative who'd co-opted a key Democratic issue.

Four years later, Romney's still widely criticized as an ideological contortionist, but there's not as much ink spilled on the way the ground has shifted beneath his feet since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which was largely modeled on Romney's idea. The once voguish individual mandate is now anathema, and those who once backed Romney -- Ezra Klein reminds us this morning that this group included Tea Party Saint Senator Jim DeMint -- now expect him to repudiate, to some degree, the signature accomplishment that got him to this level of political stature in the first place. It's like asking Bruce Springsteen to renounce "Nebraska."

But Romney's problems apparently do not end there. According to Benjy Sarlin, Republicans are growing increasingly concerned that Romney's history at Bain Capital will prove to be a liability. And as Sarlin points out, in recent days, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman -- the two rivals who can do the most damage to Romney in his New Hampshire stronghold -- have used Bain as a brickbat against Mitt. This is like now going back to Springsteen and telling him, "You know what, "Born To Run" is problematic as well." But as Sarlin explains:

The real subtext is electability. President Obama has made it absolutely clear that this race is going to about the 99% vs. the 1% on taxes, entitlements, and regulation. Sure we think Bain Capital is a paragon of free market values, Romney's Republican critics argue, but what about those swing voters who are all too easily swayed the first time they see an ad featuring workers Romney laid off?

“If you can make the argument either directly or indirectly that this makes him unelectable, then you have fundamentally undermined the rationale of his candidacy,” one unaligned Republican strategist skeptical of Romney told TPM.

Behind the scenes, Republicans opposed to Romney have long whispered that Bain is the candidate’s glass jaw, that it killed his Senate campaign in 1994, that he’s shown no sign he’s learned to handle the issue on a national stage because it’s not a big factor in the Republican primaries.

“A main argument Romney has made to Republicans has been that they should hold their noses and vote for him because he has the best chance of beating Obama,” one Republican operative at a rival campaign told TPM. “But a lot of Republicans who have thought through how his record at Bain could be used against him, especially in nasty campaign ads in economically depressed parts of swing states, think Bain is a huge liability and that Democrats will bludgeon him with it. Expect to see a lot more scrutiny of Romney’s record in business, and of Bain, in the next month.”

Next thing you know, someone at the RNC is going to realize that the "Winter Olympics" are the less-popular Olympics and its gold medals tend to be won by Norwegians.

Naturally, two big questions immediately spring to mind. The first is, "You guys are only just now figuring out that the Democrats might choose to exploit Romney's Bain Capital years in attack ads?" The second is, "What do you expect the guy you hate for always changing his position to do about it, exactly?" As Sarlin notes, the Democrats seem ready to go on the Bain-attack if Romney secures the nomination, and the Romney camp "has been preparing for these attacks for years." Sounds like a challenging set of circumstances, but who didn't see this coming four years ago? It's like everyone is panicking because they didn't expect the sun to go down at the end of the day.

Of course, as Jonathan Chait noted earlier this week, there are reasons why the GOP typically avoids nominating people, who -- like Romney -- "[look and sound] like a paragon of the upper class, with his regal appearance, precise diction, and dignified graying sideburns." "Republicans," Chait says, "have usually sought to avoid this problem by nominating candidates who can at least sell themselves as authentic representatives of the middle class." Romney's has an awkward time doing so -- in public appearances, he's dedicated himself to a fair amount of "I care about the 99%" schtick, but still draws mockery when he claims to be "unemployed."

Interestingly, Chait observes that months ago, the idea that Romney would prove to be out of touch with working Americans wasn't high on anyone's list of concerns:

Romney proposes only to eliminate capital gains taxes on income under $200,000 a year. That would cover just a tiny portion of capital gains, making it essentially a symbolic measure. A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal editorial page railed against Romney’s plan. The problem, the editorial noted, was not just that Romney wasn’t offering any new tax breaks for the rich. It was that the retreat "suggests that he's afraid of Mr. Obama's class warfare rhetoric" – that, in general, he will shrink from the task of advocating for policies that increase income inequality.

So, in a matter of months, Romney's critics have gone from assailing him for not being enough of a one-percenter to being too much of one. What's changed? Well, a few months ago, the acid test for whether 99 Percenterism could be turned into a drag on a Democratic candidate came in the form of Crossroads GPS attacks on Elizabeth Warren. That effort ended up backfiring (and since then, the attacks on Warren have also undergone a similar 180-degree shift). In more recent days, of course, there was Romney's $10,000 dollar bet, which brought him a round of terrible press and allowed the target of that bet -- Rick Perry -- to adopt a more populist pose. Perry referenced the Iowa households he drove past while campaigning, in which few people lived who could casually bet ten grand.

Of course, Perry wasn't the only Romney rival who's lately tried to make Mitt's wealth the Bain of his existence. When Romney suggested that Gingrich give back the money he'd earned as a shill for Freddie Mac, Gingrich shot back: “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.”

That probably helped nudge this full-blown Bain Capital panic along, but it came wrapped in a contradiction in the form of a broadside from George Will, accusing Gingrich of a "capital crime" -- "He faulted Mitt Romney for committing acts of capitalism." But as Sarlin reports, it's those acts of capitalism that GOP elites now believe is a liability for Romney.

Confused? Don't be. Ordinarily, the GOP wouldn't worry too much about this -- it's nothing new to have a candidate with a well-known flaw you can predict will be attacked by opponents, and in Romney's case, it's one for which they've supposedly prepared. What's different is that the GOP's dislike for Romney is so vast that it's now essentially consumed all of the qualities they once held in esteem. Complicating things further is the fact that the GOP elites also don't like Newt Gingrich, and most of the other alternatives are either unacceptable-to-the-establishment (Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman) or embarrassing (Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry).

Really, this is a story about a room full of people helplessly shrieking, "Somebody do something!"

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Around the Web

How Gingrich's Attack on Romney and Bain Backfired - David A ...

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Mitt Romney's Run Puts Spotlight on Private Equity - NYTimes.com