I have yet to talk to a media person who doesn’t think Mitt Romney’s release of his tax returns is a big deal. I also have yet to talk to a GOP grass-roots activist (not aligned with Romney or an opponent) or voter who does. Part of the reason for the divide is that Republican voters rightly suspect that the only point of the disclosure is to enable taunting of Romney about his wealth. The irony is that they know he’s rich, and they don’t care.
There was a point at Thursday night’s GOP debate when Romney, in essence, dared the press, the Democrats and Newt Gingrich (who are aligned more often than not these days) to make an issue of his wealth and his Bain career:
I know the Democrats want to go after the fact that I’ve been successful. I — I’m not going to apologize for being successful.
And I’m not — I’m not suggesting — I’m not suggesting these people are — are doing that, but I know the Democrats will go after me on that basis and that’s why I want to release these things all at the same time. And — and I — you know, my — my dad, as you know, born in Mexico, poor, didn’t get a college degree, became head of a car company. I could have stayed in Detroit like him and gotten pulled up in a car company.
I went off on my own. I didn’t inherit money from my parents. What I have I earned. I worked hard, the American way, and...
... I’m going to be able — I’m going to be able to talk to President Obama in a way no one else can that’s in this race right now, about how the free economy works, what it takes to put Americans back to work, and make sure he understands that this divisiveness, of dividing Americans between 99 and one is dangerous. We are one nation under God.
That’s as emotional and energized Romney as becomes in these debates, I suspect, because for a guy accused of having no core values he has a really strong belief in free market capitalism. He should — he knows it, it worked for him and he understands its benefits in wealth creation.
By the way, the New York Times cries foul on “didn’t inherit money from my parent.” Got him — He did inherit money but he gave it all to charity! The cur. And his dad gave him a loan (not a gift, mind you) to help pay for his first mortgage. (Umm, not an “inheritance” folks.) The cad.
All of this aptly illustrates what David Brooks fingers as a phony attack on Romney’s character:
Mitt Romney is a rich man, but is Mitt Romney’s character formed by his wealth? Is Romney a spoiled, cosseted character? Has he been corrupted by ease and luxury?
The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder. He earned two degrees at Harvard simultaneously (in law and business). He built a business. He’s persevered year after year, amid defeat after defeat, to build a political career.
Romney’s salient quality is not wealth. It is, for better and worse, his tenacious drive — the sort of relentlessness that we associate with striving immigrants, not rich scions.
After recounting his Mormon family’s extraordinary tales of hardship and turmoil, Brooks observes: “Romney seems to share his family’s remorseless drive to rise — whether it’s trying to persuade the French to give up wine and join his church, or building a business, or being willing to withstand heaps of abuse in pursuit of the presidency. He may have character flaws, but he does not have the character flaws normally associated with great wealth. His signature is focus and persistence. The wealth issue is a sideshow.”
And here is where he and Rick Santorum are more alike than not.Both Santorum and Romney had family who came from poverty, both have immigrant stories and both will outwork and out-grind the opposition. They don’t seek elite approval (as Gingrich does in snuggling up to D.C. elites) because they are grounded not in the power culture of D.C. but in family and faith. Both Santorum and Romney view Gingrich’s egomania as comical if not nutty. They’d no more paint the portrait of the universe in which they are transformational agent of history than they would cheat on their wives. Whatever you think of their politics, these two share a normal self-image, which stems from understanding there are larger things than simply one’s own self-aggrandizement.
Does any of this matter? In the end I think voters want to vote for a president they are proud of and can respect. They want a First Family that reflects, if not them, then some idealized view of traditional American life. And here’s the thing: That’s not the Gingrich (“I’ve been a serial adulterer”) reality show.