On the principle that "only Nixon can go to China," perhaps it was only within the Republican party that candidates could actually debate the merits of different modes of capitalism. Desperate and uncowed by a chiding commentariat, Gov. Perry insists that Mitt Romney's practices can and presumably should be criticized without betraying the party's commitment to free enterprise. Perry isn't opposed to "venture capitalists," -- he claims to want to bring more to Texas -- but he doesn't want "private equity firms" coming in to "take companies apart so they can make quick profits." He claims to have seen proof in South Carolina of how Bain Capital would "destruct" communities through mass layoffs. Such practices make Romney a "vulture capitalist," a label Perry won't apologize for using. Newt Gingrich apparently carries on the attack elsewhere, while ex-Gov. Palin has reportedly weighed in with an opinion that criticism of Bain is "fair."
None of this changes any Republican's opinion on the public sector -- they still distrust it for their various obscure or pathological reasons. But the populist turn against Romney and the establishment reaction against that turn seems to be forcing Republicans to think over their idealization of the private sector. For too long there's been an unthinking equation of capitalism with "free enterprise" and the work ethic itself. For the moment, however, Republicans appear to be asking themselves exactly what it is they've been defending unconditionally for so long. I don't think people are buying the argument that the likes of Perry and Gingrich have suddenly turned "left" because they criticize the way a particular capitalist did business. It may have been the party line that Republicans shouldn't question such things, and it may be that Gingrich and Perry are simply abandoning principle out of anger and frustration. But who's to say the principle in question shouldn't be abandoned? Is it really an unalterable principle of the Republican right that no profit-seeking practice should be criticized, no matter what the consequences for working-class Americans? It may prove to be if Romney is nominated, but there may be fewer Republicans if that happens.
The important thing at this moment is that Republicans are hearing the sort of arguments they would automatically ignore if they came from Democrats. Coming from Republicans, these arguments can't be ignored so easily, and that fact enrages some people who would clearly prefer not to hear this discussion. These people protest that the debate could hurt Romney in the general election, but that's short-term thinking. The future of the Republican party and what it'll stand for may be at stake.