On Crazy People, the Cayman Islands and Why Democrats Are Taking Notes

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The heavyweight tussle in Florida is quickly devolving into a very expensive slap fight. On one side is Mitt Romney, whose aides, having spent days tagging Newt Gingrich with labels like “erratic” and unreliable,” are now upping the ante by recasting Gingrich as a full-on crazy person. “UNHINGED!” read a Romney press release Thursday afternoon. The money quote, from Romney communications director Gail Gitcho, by way of lampooning Gingrich’s lunar aspirations and attacks on Bain: “Wow.” A half hour later, Romney’s team blasted out a missive from Bob Dole that, apropos of nothing in particular, recalls Gingrich’s alleged habit of showing up at Dole’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1996 toting an empty ice bucket. “That was a symbol of some sort for him—and I never did know what he was doing or why he was doing it,” writes Dole, who has endorsed Romney. Why, the man must be unhinged! 

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Amusing stuff. But Gingrich’s line of attack is potentially more damaging. The conventional wisdom, at least among the genteel GOPers for whom unfettered capitalism is an ideal on par with Reaganism, is that Gingrich discredited his claims to the conservative tradition by attacking Romney’s work at Bain. Maybe so, although it didn’t seem to inflict much damage in South Carolina. Either way Gingrich has doubled down.

At a Tea Party rally in Mt. Dora, Fla., this morning, Gingrich blistered Romney for hypocrisy in a sentence loaded with scare words: “We’re not going to beat Barack Obama with some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island accounts, owns shares in Goldman Sachs while it forecloses on Florida, and is himself a shareholder in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while he thinks the rest of us are too stupid to put the dots together.”

Never mind that Romney no longer has a Swiss account, or that Romney’s holdings in the Caymans are in Bain investments taxed at the same rate as they would be in the U.S., according to his advisers and some independent tax experts. Swiss bank accounts, the Caymans, Goldman Sachs — these are all coded terms designed to tag Romney as a cheater, the kind of Wall Street bigwig who exploits a crooked economic system where the little guy gets screwed. You’re not “too stupid” to let him get away with it, are you?

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Romney’s campaign has harnessed these sorts of attacks to argue Gingrich is waging class warfare, using the “language of the left” to smear the scriptures of conservatism. Their argument has won favor among conservative pundits — who Gingrich long ago gave up trying to sway, knowing his path to the nomination hinges on an ability to reinvent himself as a populist scourge. But regardless of who wins the nomination, Democrats are betting that the Republican nominee will be weakened by this increasingly nasty brawl. As Dan Balz reports, Obama officials believe the damage to Romney could be “real and potentially long lasting, in part because it reinforces questions voters may already have had about Romney. “I think it’s likely to stick because it isn’t an isolated episode,” [an Obama adviser] said. “It’s a pattern. At a certain point in the pattern, it gets ingrained.”

The Obama re-election campaign, the super PAC supporting it and allied progressive groups have, in fact, been working for months to highlight this pattern. To see the attacks revivified by a fellow Republican builds on and revivifies it. If Romney wins the nomination, we can expect to see lots more ads like this one, from the liberal group Americans United for Change, which has produced a series of spots that envision the greedy Gordon Gekko filling out the Romney ticket:

“Welcome to the Cayman Islands, Home of Mitt’s Millions.” Back in Chicago, Team Obama will be toasting Gingrich over a couple of Coronas.

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