BEDFORD, N.H.—Steve Bannon and Rick Tyler stood near the entrance of JD’s Tavern, the Manchester Radisson’s inexplicably Western-themed ale house. Tyler, a former Newt Gingrich spokesman who now runs the Winning Our Future super-PAC, huddled with a cellphone, identity cloaked under a baseball cap. Bannon, the conservative director and radio host, was dressed and groomed as if he’d just motorcycle-jumped a POW camp fence. When Tyler finished his call, Bannon put another Blackberry in front of him, another number.
“Dana Loesch wants you on her show,” he said. “Biggest Tea Party radio show out there. She heard you tonight on my show. She flipped. Call her.”
It’d been a few hours since the New York Times ran a story about Tyler’s coup. His PAC, newly enriched by $5 million from gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, had released a 27-minute documentary about Mitt Romney’s days at Bain Capital. The film—intended to be the foundation of an ad campaign in South Carolina, telling the state’s king-making Republican voters all about Romney’s days at Bain Capital—has it all: pulsing soundtrack, scary B-roll of men smoking cigarettes and shaking hands, three-Kleenex interviews with laid-off workers.
“Romney keeps talking about the 100,000 jobs he created,” said Tyler. “Those 100,000 jobs were in Mexico. And nobody’s been talking about it.”
This is the break-the-glass plan for Mitt’s GOP opponents: An attack on Romney’s brand of capitalism, funded by profits from the Venetian’s craps table. On Sunday, I heard Gingrich himself malign Romney as a “rich [person] figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company, leaving behind 1,700 families without a job.” It was surreal—Republicans aren’t known for bashing big business—and it may backfire. On Monday I drove around New Hampshire and heard conservatives struggling to understand it.
“I’ve known Newt Gingrich since 1994,” said Laura Ingraham in an interview with Tyler. “I’ve never heard Newt make a speech about predatory practices.”
“Newt is using the language of the left in going after Romney on Bain Capital,” sighed Rush Limbaugh. “That makes me uncomfortable.”
Limbaugh is completely right. The attack on Bain as some lumbering vampire, sucking wealth and mirth out of small towns, is exactly what Ted Kennedy’s strategist Bob Shrum used to smack Romney in his 1994 U.S. Senate race. Before the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic National Committee kept showing up at Romney rallies with people laid off from Bain-looted companies. (Let’s just use the Gingrich framework, for now.) These attacks from the left didn’t get a ton of attention because “Democratic Party Opposes Wealthy Republican’s Business Decisions” isn’t a very interesting story.
But a populist, anti-venture capital campaign that’s pitched to Republicans? That’s something else. When Mitt Romney Came to Town, the PAC’s movie, was put together by Jason Killian Meath—a video artist who once worked for Romney. (Meath didn’t respond to a request for comment today.) If you hired a documentarian from Occupy Wall Street and told him to make anti-Romney agitprop, he couldn’t do better. The movie portrays Romney as a heartless, Brylcreemed supervillain who “contribut[ed] to the greatest American job loss since World War II.”
It starts with imagery of Americans doing nice, American things. Capitalism, we’re told, is nice. It’s the reason the sun comes up over wheat fields and dads take their kids on hikes. (File footage might be the actual reason.) But Mitt Romney’s capitalism is so heinous that it can only be portrayed by the color draining out of an American flag. “Wall Street’s corporate leaders made billions of dollars,” moans a narrator. “Their greed was only matched by their willingness to make millions in profits. Nothing was spared. Nothing mattered but greed. This film is about one such raider and his firm.”
Cue the interviews with laid-off workers, who describe their health problems and their shattered towns. Romney brought down UniMac, a washing machine company, when Bain cheapened their products. “Sometimes we’d send a machine out without a part on it,” admits a shaken Romney survivor named Tommy Jones. “For Tracy and Tommy Jones,” says the narrator, “their brush with Mitt Romney and Bain nearly tore their family apart.”
UniMac, KB Toys, every company “looted” by Bain would have been fine if Romney hadn’t raided it, the film maintains. “Romney called it creative destruction,” says the narrator. (You’d never know that the term creative destruction was Joseph Schumpeter’s.) After the Tea Party took over the GOP, who thought that Republicans would start attacking laissez faire capitalism?
No one, that’s who. The GOP’s libertarian establishment, taken aback, has only just started defending Romney. The Club for Growth went hard after Gingrich’s newfound socialism: “Attacking Governor Romney for participating in free-market capitalism is just beyond the pale for any purported ‘Reagan Conservative.’ ”
The attack and the pushback are coming too late to make a difference in New Hampshire. No voter thinks Romney will lose here. But when I asked voters about Bain—admittedly, I was asking people who weren’t too warm on Romney—I started to hear why the Newt attack could work. “If I understand it,” said John O’Brien, a voter who planned to switch from Romney ’08 to Huntsman ’12, “he made his money at the expense of other companies. Didn’t he? He dismantled them, I think.”
In 2008, when he supported Romney, he didn’t ask about the Bain years, and until recently, he hadn’t thought much about it. But now he’s open to the critique. Republicans figured that the post-2008 collapse of trust in authority had been converted very smoothly into distrust for government. But Newt is betting that the distrust of corporate finance, of Wall Street, never really went away.
Romney ended his Monday with a rally down the road from Manchester, in Bedford. It was interrupted, like plenty of Romney’s rallies, by Occupy protesters. They were pulled away by cops as the candidate scorned them.
“What would you replace America with?” asked Romney. “What kind of system would you have?”
It’s a great rhetorical question when the choice is freedom or capitalism. But Romney’s desperate rivals won’t let it remain a simple choice.