Question: Why would GOP candidates vying to establish themselves as the “conservative alternative” to Mitt Romney attack the one-time financier for his robust practice of free-market economics, layoffs included, during his years at Bain Capital? Answer: Well, because he is vulnerable on that point.

Let us put aside high principle and deep conviction long enough to observe that running for president usually entails an ambitious disposition. Although people occasionally run for some other reason​—​increased notoriety, book sales, the way-station to the vice presidential nomination​—​the most common motivation is raw desire for the nation’s highest office. And on the GOP side, Mitt Romney is the biggest obstacle in every other candidate’s way in a year in which GOP chances look very good.

If you can take Romney down, you take him down; you can make it up to the capitalists later.

What was noteworthy about Tim Pawlenty’s brief excursion into the GOP field was his inability to pull the trigger against Romney: One day last June, Pawlenty called Romney’s Massachusetts health care reform legislation “Obamneycare,” elevating himself above the rest of the field by slapping a target directly on the frontrunner; the day after at a GOP debate, Pawlenty couldn’t quite bring himself to get in Romney’s face with the charge. He backed down. He just didn’t want to be president that much. Although he might be kicking himself for dropping out so early, given that most everyone else in the race eventually shot up in the polls before falling under enhanced scrutiny, he shouldn’t: He didn’t have it in him.

Romney does. He has been doing nothing but run for president for six years now, and he wants it. He and his supporters clearly understood the peril Newt Gingrich presented as the Georgian got his moment at the top of the polls when it might count, on the eve of the actual voting. They responded to this mortal threat by killing it, with a barrage of attack ads in Iowa. Does anybody think Romney would decline, on principle, to use a Bain Capital equivalent against a growing threat to his own presidential ambition?

Fortunately for Romney, and maybe even for the future of capitalism, there is an invisible hand working in the attacks on him over Bain Capital. I leave aside the merits of the attacks as such: If one is going to defend capitalism seriously, one must acknowledge that its effects are at times egregious. The strong moral case for the free market does not ignore the egregious effects; rather, it says they are worth putting up with.

When Romney said, entirely unnecessarily but with conviction, “I like being able to fire people who provide services for me,” he thought he was making a point about the discipline produced by market accountability. Anybody who’s spent time at the local DMV, where you can’t fire people who perform services for you, will appreciate the contrast. And indeed, let him who demands empathy from Mitt Romney first walk a mile in the tasseled loafers of a man who has laid off thousands.

But jeepers. The finance types who populate such books as Liar’s Poker and Bonfire of the Vanitiesare just not especially attractive human beings, or anyway are attractive only insofar as one likes hanging with the bad boys. Romney has been, by all accounts, a good boy, which makes him exceptional. But he has clearly not entirely transcended his old milieu, where they say “I’ll bet you $10,000” not in the hope you will back off, but in the hope you call the bet and they can take your money (and $10,000 is chump change, by the way).

Romney’s is the management perspective, through and through. I once had the experience of planning and administering a layoff of about a third of the 90-some people working for me. It was horrible. But you know what? It was a lot worse for the people losing their jobs.

The Wall Street Journal’s iconoclastic “Best of the Web” columnist James Taranto, though joining conservatives deploring the cynicism of Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry in embracing what sounded like a Democratic, antimarket line of attack on Romney, was among the first to understand that this attack is actually doing Romney a favor. Now is, in fact, a very opportune time for Romney to learn how to deal with such criticism.

It’s an openly avowed plan of the Obama reelection campaign to hit Romney hard over layoffs and outsourcing during his years at Bain. Real people who worked at failing companies acquired and downsized by Bain will tell their personal stories of financial and emotional devastation. It’s going to be emotionally charged if not gut-wrenching stuff.

Romney needs to be able to answer the charges. He needs an answer that he knows inside and out and can produce on demand whether he is fresh or tired. He needs an answer that doesn’t make him sound either defensive, or complacent and arrogant. He needs an answer that radiates his comfort with it as it acknowledges the legitimacy of the question itself. And to judge by his first forays over the past week in response to the first airing of these charges, he hasn’t got one yet.

The counterattack from the right on Gingrich and Perry​—​which came mostly from Romney boosters but also from some prominent Romney skeptics, notably Rush Limbaugh​—​was essentially an effort to change the subject. It was surely heartfelt, either in the straight up “pro-capitalist is pro-Bain” sense or in the attenuated form that attacking Romney on these terms would give aid and comfort to Democrats. And indeed, Democrats will no doubt use Gingrich and Perry soundbites in the fall if Romney is the nominee. One wonders, though, how damaging such clips will be. In the 1980 primary season, George H. W. Bush famously accused Ronald Reagan of “voodoo economics,” and not only did this not hurt Reagan, Bush ended up his vice presidential nominee on a ticket that won in a landslide.

Suppose Gingrich and the rest hadn’t brought up Bain. Romney and those around him would still know the attack was coming, but they wouldn’t have had the visceral experience of feeling its sting and having to respond​—​in fact, failing to respond well. They would have had to learn about their weakness and try to correct it under the much higher-pressure circumstances of the general election campaign. And all those news stories now appearing​—​“At Bain, Romney believed in ‘creative destruction’ ” (Washington Post, January 12)​—​would still be in the can, waiting for release in support of an Obama onslaught.

Unfortunately, Romney’s position vis-à-vis the GOP nomination is probably strong enough now for him to address this issue by ignoring it. If he does, he will have missed an opportunity to work on something he needs to get right long before November.

His dislike for Gingrich now is probably as thorough as vice versa. Which is too bad, because Romney really ought to thank Gingrich for raising Bain now​—​maybe buy him a pair of cufflinks from Tiffany’s.