The Obama campaign's determination to press its attack on Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital raises the prospect that this election will in part be a referendum on capitalism itself.
The President and his team will say there is nothing wrong with capitalism or private equity investing, which is how Romney got rich. But the repeated snide references to Romney's wealth and the charge that he was a profiteering job-killer suggest they don't really mean that.
In fact, the capitalist system has always had a political vulnerability: For all the wealth and jobs it has created, capitalism distributes its benefits unevenly. Democrats won't say they don't like capitalism, but they like it better when it is heavily taxed and regulated, the better to keep it from exploiting workers and despoiling the earth. That's why the top 10 per cent pay seventy percent of the taxes -- income taxes -- in this country, and why we have a large entitlement state in part to redistribute the wealth. That's also why we have a growing regulatory apparatus. All this could kind of coexist when we had a booming economy that threw off enough tax receipts to pay for everything. But now we don't. Job growth is stalled and debt is exploding.
The Obama side says unbridled capitalism is at fault and more taxes, regulation, redistribution and spending are the remedy. The Romney side says just the opposite. Which side the voters take will decide not just the election this year but the foreseeable future of this country.