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Rick Perry's Clumsy Populist Attack On Mitt Romney

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Rick Perry's swipe at Mitt Romney's private equity career Saturday was delivered with the precision of a mallet. Perry lumped together Washington, Wall Street and government-sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, declaring Romney part of a general problem with taxpayer-funded largesse for government employees and bank bailouts.

To throw Fannie and Freddie in to the same pot as the complex relationship between Washington and New York was confusing, and risks looking like a populist cheap shot. Perry also wasn't specific about how he thinks Romney's private equity past is related to bailouts, much less to the two government-backed mortgage giants.

"I don't think you have to actually have an address on Wall Street to be a part of Wall Street. I don't think anybody gets confused that Bain Capital is part of that whole Wall Street structure. I don't think that's lost on anybody," Perry told The Huffington Post Saturday.

In part, Perry attempted to very broadly indict an entire culture of Washington elites that profits in a variety of ways from the fire hose of money that flows through the nation's capital -- and a financial industry in New York that has hitched its wagon to the political class.

The problem is that Romney worked for a private equity firm that leveraged investor money -- oftentimes from Wall Street banks, but also from other sources -- and not for a financial services company that specialized in creating exotic derivatives of questionable integrity. Private equity firms were not a main cause of the economic crisis and also were not in need of bailouts, though some of these firms were creditors of the major automobile companies and received government money during the auto bailouts.

Perry's comments risk looking like a pure anti-profit jab: a statement that because Romney made a lot of money in the general realm of high-dollar investments, he is de facto blameworthy. This kind of broad attack on the financial system is what got Newt Gingrich in trouble last week, when he too knocked Romney's Bain Capital career.

The Perry campaign did little to explain the Texas governor's point after the Saturday interview, other than to say that Perry has been calling former Massachusetts Gov. Romney a product of Wall Street for some time.

But the thrust of Perry's argument -- to whatever degree he had one beyond an anti-bailout talking point -- was that because Romney comes from the world of high-dollar investments and because private equity does have strong links to the rest of the financial industry, Romney would not be able to push through reforms in Washington that would prevent future bailouts.

"There's not anybody in that crowd," Perry said, referring to his primary competition, "that has the will and the principle and the discipline to roll into Washington, D.C., and to clean up the corruption that's going on in that city or in [New York City]."

Perry continued to talk about the issue on Sunday, adding language to his stump speech that he first used in his conversation with HuffPost on Saturday.

The problem is Perry, who is notoriously uninterested in policy detail, has given few particulars about what he would do to prevent bailouts, unlike fellow candidate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has proposed breaking up the big banks to make sure no institution is so big the government would have to step in if it were to fail.

It's also worth noting that one of Perry's own top campaign officials, his national finance co-chairman James H. Lee, has plenty of ties to Wall Street himself. Lee worked as an investment banker in mergers and acquisitions in the 1980s at Lehman Brothers and First Boston Corp. Lee, who now runs an investment firm, also was chairman of the board for Texas' $80 billion teacher retirement fund in 2008, one of the largest institutional investors in the world.

So Perry's campaign is not without its own connections to powerful Wall Streeters. And in addition, one of the biggest criticisms of his governorship has been that he has taken cronyism in the state to new heights.

The Perry campaign declined to comment about Lee and his connections to Wall Street.

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