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The Bain Opportunity

Candidates facing primary challenges almost always claim that any unwanted criticism from their rivals threatens party unity or gives the opposition ammunition it can use in the general election. Sometimes that's true; sometimes it's not; often it's exaggerated.

But the latest multi-candidate assault on Mitt Romney's record with Bain Capital is a development that not only raises doubts about the likely Republican nominee that can and should continue to haunt him in the general election, but in fact undermines a central element of conservative ideology.

Take a look, if you haven't already, at the prototype ad pro-Gingrich Super-PAC Winning the Future, with a $5 million war chest behind it, will apparently use as the basis of saturation ads in South Carolina:

It's nasty. It's personal. It's reasonably specific. And, as Jonathan Chait points out, it's largely indistinguishable from the kind of case that Democrats would make against the heartlessness embedded in Romney's much-touted history as a "job creator."

But aside from its relative value as a weapon against Mitt, do conservatives grasp its value as a weapon against conservative laissez-faire ideology?

Yes, there is a rich right-wing tradition of "producerism," the belief that the job-creating efforts of virtuous industrial titans (and if they are not unionized, their virtuous workers) are being constantly threatened by "parasites"--usually financiers and those favoring government intervention in the economy, but the paradigm is easily expanded to include "elite" consultants like those from Bain--who must be rooted out to create "true" free enterprise. And that's the sentiment Newt's Republican enemies are appealing to.

But today's conservatives do not have anything like a consistent "producerist" agenda. They may occasionally demagogue against Wall Street financiers, but they violently oppose regulation of Wall Street. And for all the exploitation of resentment of Bain's activities, they also avidly endorse the "creative destruction" of capitalist adaptation to market conditions that Bain represented, and offer the human "collateral damage" involved absolutely nothing. With some editing, the Winning the Future ad could be run against virtually any Republican candidate for office from coast to coast, and certainly any of Romney's rivals.

It's unclear how effective the last-gasp assault on Romney will turn out to be. But it is creating a narrative of Republican indifference to the human costs of a Randian approach to the economy that is a pretty good foundation for Democrats to build on, and not just against Mitt Romney, in the months before November.