Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - Newt Gingrich's sharp counter attack against Mitt Romney for "laying off employes" during his years as a venture capital investor was taken right out of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's liberal campaign playbook.

Stung by the former governor's criticism for earning a small fortune from the government's bailed-out mortgage giant, Freddie Mac, Gingrich shot back that his rival had bankrupted businesses during his years with Bain Capital, the successful private investment firm Romney founded before going into politics.

The volley of charges and counter-charges began this week when Romney said in a television interview that the former House speaker should give back the more than $1.6 million he earned from federally- backed Freddie Mac.

Gingrich fired back that he'd consider returning the money "if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he'd earned bankrupting companies and laying off employes over his years" in the private sector.

That was the same line of attack Kennedy used against Romney with deadly effect to blunt his strong Republican challenge in the 1994 Senate race.

It was pure demagoguery then and its demagoguery now.

Kennedy's strategists dug up some cases where Bain took over troubled but promising businesses that had to be slimmed down to make them more efficient and ready for expansion. That sometimes means payroll cuts.

In many cases, these investments paid off handsomely and built start up companies into major corporations. One of Romney's biggest successes was a small enterprise called Staples that grew into 2,000 stores in 26 countries and created jobs for thousands of Americans. In others, the investments failed to turn the company around.

The Kennedy campaign found workers who had been laid off under Bain's fix-it strategy who told their stories in TV attack ads with devastating effect.

Venture capital investment is a tough, risky business and not all enterprises take off, and, in the business community as a whole, many fail. But many also succeed, and in the free market, that's what contributes to new job creation and a growing economy.

Gingrich, a free market enthusiast, knows this but when he found himself under fire for his high-paying, lobby-like arrangement at Freddie Mac, he reached for Kennedy's demogogic tactic and fired.

"There's a big difference between working in the private economy and working on (Washington's) K Street and working as a lobbyist or working as a legislator or working to connect businesses with government," Romney said.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.