This week, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney called on newly minted front-runner and noted historian Newt Gingrich to return the estimated $1.6 million he made providing "strategic advice" to Freddie Mac, the quasi-governmental agency that has done the hard work of making "toxic home mortgages" a forever feature of our national portfolio.
To this, Newt, the great American theorist, unsheathed his trademark intellect and offered a completely irrelevant yet vaguely smart-sounding retort: "If Gov. Romney would give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over the years at Bain, then I would be glad to listen to him. But I bet you $10, not $10,000, that he won't take the offer."
Nice, Newt. When the former House speaker wins the nomination, he and the president can discuss how the rich are "bankrupting companies," engaging in profit-mongering and risky behavior, and generally messing up the world for kicks. And throwing in Romney's recent debate gaffe (or what I'm told is a gaffe) was a nice touch, as well. You may not have heard: Romney laid down a bet with fellow candidate Rick Perry for a cool $10,000 (or what Newt probably spends on lunch every week) during a recent debate. Doesn't Mitt know that candidates, no matter how successful they may be, must always act as if they mow their lawns and eat curly fries at diners on Friday nights. If not, the electorate will be deeply insulted.
This kind of rhetoric is nothing new for Republicans. During the 2008 primaries, Mike Huckabee noted that "Mitt Romney looks like the guy that fires you." This assessment was backed up by then-candidate John McCain, who, we soon found out, understood as much about the economy as Meghan McCain.
If you get rich working in finance, there's a good chance you did something wrong, right? And Mitt, well, Mitt is heartless. Mitt worked for Bain Capital. Mitt was part of the private equity firm that salvaged poorly run, bloated businesses -- sometimes through "painful" cuts and firings. There are honorable ways of getting rich (peddling political influence and/or writing books), and then there's the Wall Street way. Newt, no less of a flip-flopping careerist than Romney, sold his political connections for wealth rather than create any.
If Romney could -- or wanted to -- do to federal government what Bain did to failing companies, we would all be better off. If a Romney administration gutted bureaucracy, he would help create more efficient institutions of government. If Romney believed taxpayer dollars should never be used to artificially prop up rotting or unprofitable ventures, great. If he believed that some companies needed to fail so other, more innovative ones could take their place, awesome. If he believed that risk -- a concept so reviled by this administration -- is the driving force of capitalism, he might be onto something.
Certainly, it's a philosophy that beats more Newt-style technocratic "conservative" capitalism and capitalism infused with subjective concepts of progressive "fairness" any day.
And Lord knows there are many reasons to worry about a Mitt Romney presidency. However, knowing what we know now about his time at Bain Capital is not one. Neither is the fact that Mitt is a stiff rich dude.
Republicans would be better off letting the president and his friends vilify success and profit rather than feeding the perception that investment risk and creative destruction are things we should avoid. Yet I suppose that watching Gingrich go down this road tells us more about his candidacy and ideological flexibility than it does about any of those quixotic "solutions" he has in store for us.
Follow at @davidharsanyi.