Mitt Romney Dogged by Empathy Gap
Over the past few days, conservative forces have mobilized to protect Mitt Romney from incoming fire over his rapidly multiplying tax scandals. Former Bush press flack Ari Fleischer and the Wall Street Journal editorial page predictably - and comically - argued the rich already pay too much in taxes. On consecutive days, New York Times columnist David Brooks asked "why do we make candidates release their tax forms" and praised Romney's "remorseless drive to rise" before concluding, "The wealth issue is a sideshow."
Sadly for his water carriers, Mitt Romney's wealth is not the issue for American voters. The scrutiny Romney has denounced as "envy" and "class warfare" is instead a simple plea for empathy and fairness. Voters are looking for a sign - any sign - of empathy from this multimillionaire chronically incapable of understanding the lives and struggles of the people he would serve. But with his ham-handed secrecy, Mitt Romney is only confirming the growing suspicion of Americans told to "work hard and play by the rules" that those rules don't apply to him.
In Thursday's South Carolina debate, Romney turned defensive, declaring, "I'm not going to apologize for being successful." But even Jim Demint, the Tea Party icon and Palmetto State kingmaker who endorsed Romney four years ago, admitted it's not envy fueling voters visceral dislike for the former CEO of Bain Capital. As ABC explained, Demint believes Romney needs to "work on his empathy":
"I know I had to do it a few times in my career and I had sleepless nights and it killed me to do it but I was doing it to save the other employees in my company and keep it going," DeMint said. "If he doesn't explain this well he's going to see this again if he's the nominee in the general election."
To be sure, Romney's repeated and comical failures to present himself as a "man of the people" have only deepened his yawning empathy gap. Romney, who this week explained that over the last decade "my income comes overwhelmingly from some investments made in the past," joked with jobless voters that "I'm also unemployed." The $250 million man similarly declared himself "part of the 80 to 90 percent of us" who are middle class, when just the "not very much" $374,000 he earned in speaking fees last year puts him in the top one percent of income earners. Whether or not he really enjoys firing people, Mitt Romney almost certainly was never in danger of either "getting a pink slip" or pooping in a bucket during his time as a missionary at a toney Paris mansion. (Who else would lecture a child about his plans to divvy up his estate among his 16 grandchildren or endorse rooftop canine waterboarding?) And there's no doubt that the man who spent $12 million to buy his third home (none of which are located on "the real streets of America") didn't win any friends when he offered this prescription for the housing market crisis:
"Don't try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom, allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up."
It's no surprise Mitt Romney believes income inequality should only be discussed in "quiet rooms." But it certainly didn't help matters when his wife Ann joked "Mitt doesn't even know the answer to that" when asked how many dressage horses she owns while her husband denounces Democrats as "the party of monarchists." It's no wonder his ally and Massachusetts GOP Senator Scott Brown urged Romney to release his tax returns:
"He's in a category, a lot of those folks are in categories that we don't really understand."
Brown was only saying what most Americans were thinking when he acknowledged that Romney is living in "a different world from me."
And in that world, the rules most Americans play by simply don't apply to Mitt Romney.
It's bad enough that Romney pays only about 15 percent of his income to Uncle Sam each year, a rate well below most middle class families. Worse still, the notorious "carried interest" exemption for private equity managers Romney wants to preserve taxes him not at the ordinary income rate of 35 percent but at the capital gains rate now half of what it was only 15 years ago. And as it turns out, most of Mitt's millions each year come from his controversial former employer, Bain Capital. As a man with a $100 million trust fund for his sons, millions more stashed in offshore Cayman Island accounts and an almost unprecedented IRA worth tens of millions of dollars, Mitt Romney is benefitting from a tax system that provides him with advantages few Americans knew existed. And to add insult to injury, Romney wants to eliminate the estate tax, creating a likely windfall topping $80,000,000 for his heirs, a gap in the U.S. Treasury that would have to be plugged by all other Americans.
Few suspect Mitt Romney has done anything illegal in the hidden tax returns he now admits he will have to release. As Paul Krugman explained:
But the larger question isn't what Mitt Romney's tax returns have to say about Mitt Romney; it's what they have to say about U.S. tax policy. Is there a good reason why the rich should bear a startlingly light tax burden?
For they do. If Mr. Romney is telling the truth about his taxes, he's actually more or less typical of the very wealthy.
Jack Blum, a Washington lawyer who is an authority on tax enforcement and offshore banking explained, "His personal finances are a poster child of what's wrong with the American tax system." And that's a problem not just for Mitt Romney, but for a Republican Party determined to drain the United States Treasury in order to provide tax cuts for the richest Americans who need them least and that the country can't afford.
As Bill Clinton famously put it, the American Dream can be expressed simply:
"No matter who you are or where you're from, if you work hard and play by the rules, you'll have the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own dreams and leave your kids a country where they can chase theirs."
What can no longer be left unsaid is that the same rules must apply to everybody. Mitt Romney is a living, breathing reminder that they don't.
Which is why Mitt Romney needs to drop his talk of envy, and fast. He doesn't need to repeat Teddy Roosevelt's crusade against "malefactors of great wealth" or FDR's warnings about "the forces of selfishness" and "that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob." But he might start by emulating his father George Romney, and not just by releasing a dozen years of his tax returns. As Rick Perlstein recalled the Michigan Governor and American Motors magnate:
As a CEO he would give back part of his salary and bonus to the company when he thought they were too high. He offered a pioneering profit-sharing plan to his employees. Most strikingly, asked about the idea that "rugged individualism" was the key to America's success, he snapped back, "It's nothing but a political banner to cover up greed."
At the very least, Mitt Romney should stop comparing President Obama to Marie Antoinette. And the next time Romney finds himself on "the real streets of America," he might try walking a mile in another man's shoes.