I keep hearing that people are claiming it's a problem that Mitt Romney is rich. Only no one actually seems to be saying that. I understand why Mitt Romney is claiming that, which he continually does. He's changing the subject and trying to fight with a straw-man. But there's abundant evidence -- both negative and positive -- that voters really don't begrudge politicians their wealth. John Kerry, because of his marriage, was and is fabulously wealthy. Mike Bloomberg, not a problem. Bushes, Kennedys. It's always a part of their public profile; but seldom an issue that cuts against them. So let's cut the crap. It's not an issue for Romney now. Everybody knows he's worth somewhere between $150 and $250 million. He actually talks about it constantly, in as much as most of the premise of his campaign is his very real record of success as a businessman.
And let's give him his due: he was really successful. Romney was born to wealth and privilege (Dad was CEO of AMC, then longtime governor). Mitt made a huge fortune on his own on top of that. But no one remotely relevant to this election begrudges him that. And he and his campaign know it.
Romney's problem is that he's running in a year in which tax equity has suddenly been thrust to the center of the public debate. (It's difficult to imagine a similar furor in 2008 or 1996 or almost any other year.) And he turns out to be a poster-boy for just what most people find most inequitable about the current tax code: that some people who are extraordinarily wealthy pay a tax rate about the same as others who are barely holding on in the middle class (see this chart). He's said himself that his overall tax rate is probably around 15%. It might well be lower -- we'll find out tomorrow. But all by itself I believe the Romney campaign realizes that number is radioactive.
A big part of the 2012 election is going to be about tax equity and more generally who the government is working for. Mitt Romney is a poster boy for an answer to that question that cuts very badly for Republicans. And this doesn't even get into the possibility that Romney's money is sitting in offshore tax havens or he's further cutting his rates with various paper losses.
That's half the equation.
But as they say on the late night informercials, there's more.
We've already had a protracted legislative standoff over whether to fund a continued payroll tax holiday with a fairly small tax hike on the super wealthy -- people who make more than $1 million a year. The public supports it by big margins. Congressional Republicans and Romney are firmly against it. Democrats are also trying to frame much of the election around the so-called 'Buffett Rule' -- the simple proposition that the extremely wealthy shouldn't have a lower tax rate than your average middle class wage-earner. Again, at least as a general concept, that's something the public overwhelmingly agrees with. Add to this the fact that the tax plan Romney's running on would actually cut his own taxes while hiking taxes for those at the bottom of the scale.
Both positions have hurt the GOP over the last year. But crouched behind the battlements of congressional anonymity and 'gridlock,' it has not damaged them that much. That all changes in a general election. The Republican nominee will be a real life person the public will be asked to learn about, relate to, judge and so forth. And he's got to carry these positions on his back all year. Every time he gets asked why he doesn't think we should help close the deficit with a small additional tax on the super-rich ... well, remember, it's about him. He is the super rich. And he's also the guy who's worth maybe a quarter billion dollars and pays a tax rate a bit lower than the local public school teacher.
Looked at another way, with their earlier push for the "Buffett Rule" Democrats already wanted to make the 2012 election about the concept of "Mitt Romney" -- even if Mitt Romney the guy was still at Bain Capital and we'd never heard of him. He's the cluster of issues Democrats want to put at the heart of the conversation in 2012; and he's the cluster of issues Republicans want to keep off the table.
Well, what luck for Democrats? It shouldn't be hard to keep concept "Mitt Romney" at the center of the debate since real guy Mitt Romney is actually the friggin' nominee.
That's what this is about: Mitt well captures the belief of the majority of people in the country that the system is rigged on behalf of the very wealthy. It's not the wealth itself. People don't begrudge Romney his wealth or his "success." That's Romney spin. I also don't think people expect him to pay more taxes than he's legally obligated to do. If I were making Romney money, I certainly wouldn't. But I'd also support changing the rules because we need that money to get the country's finances in order. The problem Romney faces is that he's a living breathing example of what many people see as the problem. And by his stated positions, he doesn't think it's a problem. If you're running Mitt's campaign, that's a problem.