Romney, the rich and the delicate politics of wealth and class


Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a campaign event with Republican Governors at Basalt Public High School on August 2, 2012 in Basalt, Colorado. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

We want the pony. We want the Jet Ski. We want the big house on the beach, the big account at the bank (Swiss or otherwise), the big car in the garage (especially if that garage comes equipped with a super-cool elevator that lifts the car from one floor to the next.)

Face it, we want what Mitt Romney has — we want to be rich. Americans don’t just want to be rich — when we’re young and looking ahead at our lives, many of us really believe we will become rich. It’s in our national DNA. An American Dreamscape of private jets and bubbly. All of which makes this political season’s obsession with wealth even more intriguing. How come it feels a bit like R-I-C-H is now a dirty, dirty word?

That notion — wealth as political liability — is spliced into each tut-tutting reaction to each tin-eared utterance from Romney, a candidate who wants so badly to turn his financial success into a political asset but keeps stumbling into class warfare minefields. You’ve heard the disapproving chatter. How dare he defend himself by challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet! How dare he boast that his wife has two Cadillacs! How dare he say he didn’t make much in speaking fees when he actually made more than $370,000!

Well, here’s a question for you: Wouldn’t you like to be able to casually throw around $10,000 bets, own a couple of Caddies, haul in a few hundred grand to give a few speeches? And would it matter to you whether you made your dough building widgets or buying and selling shares in a widget-manufacturing company, hitting a baseball or collecting an inheritance?

President Obama keeps picking away at this perceived Romney vulnerability, speechifying about inequality, pressing to tax the wealthy and spare the middle class and reminding listeners that he wasn’t born with “a silver spoon” in his mouth, a not-so-subtle memory-jogger that Romney was born into a well-heeled family.

“Obviously, it’s trying to play on the anger of the nation about the economy,” says Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian and author of the book “Governing America: The Revival of Political History.” “But it’s a risk for Obama. The Republicans have always wanted to say Obama is left of center. The risk Obama faces is that this plays into that.”

Certainly, wealth hasn’t dissuaded Americans from choosing their leaders in the past, from George Washington, the Virginia agricultural baron, to George W. Bush, the Texas privileged son. Congress is filled with the wealthy. More than two-thirds of U.S. senators and nearly half of Congress as a whole are millionaires, according to an analysis released late last year by the Center for Responsive Politics. Rare is the political bigwig without a big account balance. 

Americans aren’t just inclined to elect the wealthy. They’re also generally okay with the existence of an upper class, and they have been for some time. But it goes deeper than that. They also think we’re better off for having economic elites. Twenty-two years ago, Gallup asked a sampling of Americans whether they thought the United States benefited from having a class of rich people. Sixty-two percent answered “yes.” The firm asked the same question in May, and almost the same percentage — 63 percent — answered in the affirmative. A majority of Republicans feel this way, but so do majorities, albeit smaller majorities, of Democrats and independents. Men and women, too. Conservatives, moderates and liberals? Them too. 

That sentiment survived Occupy Wall Street, and it outlasted the “too big to fail” travails of the 2008 credit market meltdown. It has persisted through recessions, a yo-yo stock market and Enron. How could this be?

It’s all about dreaming. “A lot of Americans want to be rich themselves,” says Frank Newton, Gallup’s editor-in-chief.

And they believe they will be, too. Nearly half the 18-to-29-year-olds surveyed envisioned becoming rich, despite all the evidence to the contrary. “There is this view, this myth of mobility,” says Edward Nathan Wolff, a New York University economist who has tracked rising income inequality in the United States.

A raft of studies is chipping away at the image of the United States as a place where upward mobility is attainable for all. A Pew study showed that more than 40 percent of Americans born into families in the bottom fifth of the income scale remain there as adults and 70 percent of those children never make it to the middle class. Yet, when asked, Americans tend to cling to the notion that anything is possible for them.

“This is part of American culture,” Zelizer says. “Even when it has nothing to do with reality.”

And so, when wealth seems within reach, Americans “don’t necessarily have anger toward someone who is rich. They want the kind of success that Romney’s had,” Zelizer says.  

At least, they do in a purely monetary, giant-numbers-in-the-account-book sense. But there’s more to this puzzle. If Americans are so chill about the rich being rich, then why is Romney still getting whacked over his moolah? It’s not like Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor whose vast wealth could almost make Romney appear the pauper, gets this kind of treatment — though it would be interesting to see how his billions would get spun if he decided to run for national office one day.

Bloomberg’s got a daughter who is an avid equestrian (and starred in a documentary called “Born Rich”), but — for now, at least — he mostly gets a pass, aside from the snickers about his fancy travel habits.

Yet, poor (or not so poor) Romney, whose campaign has said he’s worth about $200 million, has a wife who is into “dressage,” that fancy prancing equestrian sport, and gets lampooned. Rafalca, Ann Romney’s horse, might be one of the most famous athletes in the London Olympics. Rafalca debuted Thursday with a performance that the first lady hopeful — who rides as therapy for her multiple sclerosis — said she was “thrilled” to watch. (Not unexpectedly, the liberal group MoveOn.org commemorated the occasion with a mocking ad accusing the Romneys of spending nearly twice the average American’s annual income for the horse’s upkeep while angling to repeal the Obama administration’s health-care law and ship U.S. jobs overseas.)

Romney squirms when the subject comes up, even telling NBC’s Brian Williams that he doesn’t know when his wife’s horse is competing, as if he lives in terror that showing up at an event associated with the upper class would make him look like what everyone knows he is: a rich guy. Can you imagine blowing off your wife’s or husband’s Olympic event?

Little in the ambit of Romney spending escapes scrutiny, whether it’s the $55,000 “Phantom Park” car elevator that a designer claims the Republican candidate is ordering for his La Jolla digs in California or the speedboat he chauffeurs the grandkids in during lake house vacations.

The twist here may be the way Romney got rich. He didn’t do it like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, perfecting a manufacturing process or inventing revolutionary products. He did it in the more opaque realm of high finance, the buying and selling of stocks and bonds, companies and factories. 

And here’s where Obama seems to be placing his bet with all those hundreds of millions in campaign donations. You see, as the pollster Newton points out, “Americans believe it is appropriate to have higher income if you put effort in, if you work hard.” Turn Romney into an insider who made his wad callously moving pieces around some corporate chess board and, poof, all that American admiration for gumption could vanish. Or at least that seems to be the calculus. Make Romney one of them — the faceless powers-that-be — instead of one of us, the kids who made good.

Pew researchers have detected this anti-gilded class sentiment, discovering in a survey that 77 percent of Americans think too much power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of wealthy individuals and corporations.

But this business about attacking a candidate because he was big in business isn’t without perils, and Romney seems to sense that or, at a minimum, to sense that he’s got some rehab work to do. On Piers Morgan’s CNN show the other night, he protested against the gibes, repeating the word success like a mantra of American dreaming.

“There are people who are trying to attack success and are trying to attack our success. That’s not going to be successful,” the successful-businessman-turned-Republican-presidential-aspirant said. “When you attack success, you have less of it. And that’s what we’ve seen in our economy over the last few years. Dividing America based on who has money and who hasn’t. Who is successful and who is less successful. That is not the American way.”

Obama wants to splice it further. And so, as Zelizer observes, the president seeks to define Romney as someone who became wealthy from “ ‘vulture capitalism’ versus ‘capitalism,’ someone who didn’t produce but made money through money. That could work, especially in the post-2008 climate. That said, the fact that so many middle-class Americans are invested in the stock market (by historical comparison) makes this kind of wealth-generation more popular and, once again, can easily backfire on Obama.”

Even those who can’t have pretty ponies are looking for someone to tell them that they’ll have pretty 401(k)s. In their eyes, surely, there’s a dirtier word than R-I-C-H, and that’s P-O-O-R.  

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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