Romney’s Wealth

Josh Marshall expresses exasperation today that anyone would seriously contend Mitt Romney’s wealth (not to mention his means of securing it, and of avoiding taxes on it) should not be a legitimate issue in the presidential campaign:

Having vast wealth and aggressively working the law and tax code to avoid taxes is a very different thing if your policy agenda is geared almost entirely to benefit the super wealthy. If you’re a gazillionaire and your main pitch is to cut taxes on gazillionaires that’s just gonna put a bit more emphasis on your wealth. This logic should not be difficult to grasp.

Well, if your political ideology predisposes you to identify wealth with virtue and taxation with theft, I suppose any attention to a candidate’s after-tax wealth that isn’t laudatory is by definition an appeal to envy and prejudice. But I think Romney’s identification with his wealth is even more fundamental than Josh suggests: it’s not just his platform that is focused single-mindedly on increasing the share of national treasure available for the job-creating good works of rich folks and the companies they run and invest in: his message, which rarely touches on the messy details of policy, is that he knows how to “fix” the economy as attested by his business success, which in our system is measured by money.

In any event, the wailing about “class warfare” and “demagoguery” among Republicans is a sure sign they understand that Mitt’s wealth is a problem. It’s largely been forgotten that in 2008, John McCain reportedly (according to Game Change) struck Mitt from his list of possible running-mates because of his fabulous wealth, which exacerbated McCain’s own wealth issues after the embarrassing incident wherein he couldn’t remember how many houses he owned. That was before the financial crisis had fully manifested itself, demonstrating that corporate wizards like Mitt Romney weren’t exactly as smart as they were cracked up to be (other than in their ability to offload the consequences of their mistakes on others).

So of course Romney’s wealth is going to be an issue. Americans have proven repeatedly that they won’t hold a candidate’s wealth against him or her; indeed, they tend to like rich guys on one level, believing them to be less likely to take bribes. But candidates can definitely make their wealth a major liability. One way is to be like Meg Whitman and use that wealth to try to bludgeon voters into supporting them via a mind-numbing level of political advertising. And another is to be the rich guy who makes his wealth his primary qualification for office, while promising to make life easier for other rich guys. If I were a Republican I wouldn’t want that sort of candidate leading my party at a time when unemployment is high and millions of voters have watched their financial assets erode or evaporate in very recent memory. But then again, Republicans probably wouldn’t have nominated Mitt if they hadn’t wound up with the worst field of candidates a major party has had in decades.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.