In New Hampshire Speech, Mitt Romney Walks Into Bain Trap

'Free market' doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.

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Today I happened to be reading Thomas Frank’s new book Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. I’ve only just cracked it, but my initial impression is that Frank overstates the degree to which the Tea Party actually believes its Manichean rhetoric about socialism and free enterprise. I’ve written about this many times before, so there’s no need to rehash it tonight. With that in mind, I’m wondering this: Is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in danger of overreacting to former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s attacks on his record at Bain Capital?

[Check out political cartoons about Mitt Romney.]

In tonight’s New Hampshire victory speech, Romney tried to draw a sharp ideological contrast with the president:

President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial, and in the last few days we’ve seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation.

This sounds like the kind of bracing “choice, not an echo” rhetoric that economic conservatives want from the eventual presidential nominee.

[See editorial cartoons about the 2012 Republican presidential field.]

The problem is that, for Tea Partyers, terms like “free enterprise” and “capitalism” are gauzy cultural signifiers. You don’t necessarily want to hang the faces of Bain Capital on them. A very justifiable lack of institutional trust suddenly becomes pertinent.

A blogger at conservative RedState.com perceptively writes:

[A] lot of Republican voters, particularly those who aren’t currently subscribed to Investor’s Business Daily or National Review, have ambivalent feelings towards capitalism. They understand the principle, but question the current people in charge of the execution.

If Romney, seeking to inoculate himself against the charge that he’s a Wall Street “vulture,” asks Americans if they’re as ideologically committed to unfettered finance capitalism as he is, I suspect he’s not going to like the answer.

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