Mitt & the Jet Ski

Hey, Mitt, You Can Be Rich and Win the Election, Just Not Richie Rich

On the heels of his vacation, Romney’s wealth is becoming a bigger campaign liability, says Robert Shrum.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

The nominee decided to take a few days with his family cruising the New England coast on the yacht Myth II. He announced the journey in advance; a press boat followed his wake as he passed by the expansive family estate where he had vacationed in the years of his youth. For many Americans, this was the worst of times—scarred by foreclosure, grim levels of unemployment, and grinding deprivation. The nominee nonetheless flashed a smile as the cameras repeatedly photographed and filmed him, at the helm and on excursion to the shore. On one of them, he spoke to a crowd of 50,000 in Hampton Beach, N.H.

Hardly anyone in that crowd could have imagined, much less afforded, such a trip. But they cheered wildly for the Franklin Roosevelt of 1932 because they believed that he could imagine their lives, that he comprehended their hurts and hopes—and that he would fight for them. And that’s the difference between FDR’s yacht and Mitt Romney’s Jet Ski.

Historically, in American politics, being wealthy doesn’t mean a candidate has to be regarded as remote, out-of-touch, or unfeeling. What matters is not where you come from but where you stand.

Thus, in the spring of 1932, Roosevelt had defined his cause—“the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid”—and been roundly criticized by other leaders in his own party, including the 1928 Democratic nominee Al Smith, for “setting class against class ... rich against poor.” For voters, the criticism was as persuasive as the speech: Roosevelt was wealthy, from a privileged and patrician background, but he was on their side.

In contrast, Romney—in indelible, tin-tongued ways—has conveyed that he is not only of the 1 percent but by and for the 1 percent. From telling a group of jobless workers that he was “also unemployed,” to casually offering to bet “$10,000” over a debating point, to enthusing that he “like[s] being able to fire people,” to suggesting that $374,000 in speaking fees isn’t “very much money”—the list goes on and on—Romney carried out of the primaries the image of a candidate awkwardly oblivious to the concerns of everyday life and reflexively committed to comforting the comfortable. So as he repaired to his $10 million vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee—not to be confused with his $12 million oceanfront home in La Jolla, Calif., where he is building an elevator for his cars—the presumptive GOP nominee brought with him a set of poll ratings that highlight what The New York Times’s Nate Silver months ago characterized as “Romney’s Empathy Gap.”

A Washington Post/ABC survey found that only 37 percent of voters agreed that he “understands the economic problems people in this country are having.” According to NBC/Wall Street Journal data, Democrats now hold a 19-point advantage on “looking out for the middle class.”

Barack Obama and his campaign pressed this advantage, pouncing on Romney’s lavish holiday, with the president reminiscing about his own “favorite vacation as a child”—traveling around the country on “Greyhound buses, railroads.” It was a vivid attempt at contrast, and it worked because of the perception that the Romney who is primarily for the rich doesn’t feel the pain of ordinary people as FDR preeminently did.

Indeed another chapter of history suggests that this, and not Obama’s own modest background, is the key here. Richard Nixon played the wealth card against JFK, who occasionally relaxed during the summer of 1960 in Hyannis Port, sailing the waters of Nantucket Sound. In a typical sally, Nixon piously intoned, “I know what it means to be poor.” The tone was stiff compared with Obama’s happy invocation of his Greyhound days. But that’s not why the appeal fell flat.

The JFK who emerged from the primaries was entirely distinct from what Romney would become. Yes, Kennedy was rich. But in West Virginia, where he had to face down anti-Catholic prejudice, he descended into the coal mine; day after day, he witnessed poverty and hunger—and was appalled by it. People could sense his reaction, that he would be a president for them, even if they never heard his private comment when he was back in his Senate office, wrongly convinced that he would lose the primary. West Virginia’s voters might be “bigots,” but if he ever got the chance, he swore he was going to do something to improve their lives.

Kennedy, like Roosevelt, didn’t hide his background. He didn’t have to; he had the benefit of being viewed as a voice and a force for economic justice. That’s not to say he wasn’t wary of looking too elitist; but the one major precaution that his campaign took proves the essential point that what counts isn’t your position in life, it’s your position on fairness and opportunity. His wife, Jackie, was pregnant—and that was not only a genuine reason but a convenient pretext for largely keeping her off the campaign trail. There was a calculation that she looked and sounded too upper crust. Then, after Kennedy was in office, she emerged, glamour and all, as a dazzling political asset. (That’s why she was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, as JFK prepared to run for reelection.)

Like Ann Romney, Jacqueline Kennedy was fond of equestrian sports. She was photographed in full gear atop a horse jumping a fence—although, unlike Ann Romney, she never owned a horse that was competing in the Olympics. But the larger context defined the relationship between wealth and public attitudes: JFK, unlike Mitt Romney, was fighting to pass Medicare, not to voucherize and privatize it.

All through the primaries, sometimes clumsily, often to placate the right wing, Romney almost unfailingly defined himself as insensitive or indifferent to what FDR called “the average American.” And with Romney’s hold on the nomination secured, the Obama advertising moved smartly and swiftly to harden that self-definition. The attacks on the Republican candidate’s job-destroying profiteering at Bain, on his self-enriching record of shipping jobs overseas, provoked some of the wise guys in the president’s own party to reprove him as they echoed Al Smith’s denunciation of “class warfare.” Commentators have been furiously questioning the strategy; the hand-wringing appears to be an irresistible pundit parlor game inside the Acela corridor. Meanwhile, the NBC/Wall Street Journal findings in the swing states, where the anti-Romney ads have been running, show Obama moving out to an 8-point lead.

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The picture of Romney as the plutocratic politician, the tribune of the few, is a continually emerging Etch a Sketch too deeply etched to be easily altered. The campaign has no convincing response, in part because his strategists don’t want to talk about any of this, and because they don’t have much to say that will do them any good. They don’t have an answer to the Bain assault 18 years after it pulverized Romney’s race for the Senate against Ted Kennedy; they had to know it was coming again. Their push-back on sending jobs overseas is an exercise of consultants dancing on the head of a political pin, drawing a ridiculous, labored, and largely incomprehensible distinction between “outsourcing” and “off-shoring.”

In general, Romney’s defense consists of dismissive clichés about the virtues of the “private sector” and the transgressions of, yes, “class warfare.” There was a new wrinkle, another empty comeback, when we learned that he has a Swiss bank account and offshore holdings in Bermuda. His spokeswoman Andrea Saul thundered: “The Obama campaign’s latest unfounded character assault on Mitt Romney is unseemly and disgusting.” What about untrue? Actually, she didn’t say that because she can’t. The Obama rejoinder was simple and a sign of things to come: Romney should release “additional years of tax returns to prove he didn’t use these offshore accounts and corporations to avoid paying U.S. taxes.”

The media have let Romney get away with a degree of secrecy unprecedented in national politics since Richard Nixon, whether it’s withholding a scan of tax returns that other post-Watergate nominees have customarily had to release or stonewalling the identity of the bundlers who swell Romney’s campaign coffers. What does he have to hide? Are there years when he didn’t pay any income taxes? The president’s campaign will keep the pressure on here—and broaden the critique by turning to the Romney policies that relentlessly favor those at the top at the expense of everyone else.

Ultimately, Mitt will be in a mess not because he’s a rich candidate but because he’s the candidate of the rich. His vacation isn’t an issue but a metaphor for everything else he is and advocates. He’s the polar opposite not only of Democrats like FDR and JFK, but of a Republican named Theodore Roosevelt, another heir to fortune, who branded his presidency and his purpose as he scorned “the malefactors of great wealth.” Instead Romney’s intent on destroying T.R.’s century-old dream of health coverage for all by cutting health insurance for millions while cutting taxes for millionaires.

Romney doesn’t have even a sliver of Ronald Reagan’s capacity to be conservative and yet speak for and to the common man. In 1980 Reagan called for “a commitment to care for the needy.” This winter Romney blurted out the off-putting proof about himself: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”

In a presidential campaign, a candidate walks and talks with ordinary Americans. Romney has done so and yet not lost the royalist touch. He has an upside-down favorable/unfavorable rating and that empathy gap, which Nate Silver points out “correlate[s] with whether people currently favor Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama.”

The last months have brought a slowing of the recovery, and one reason is the adamant Republican resistance to any measure that would create jobs. Yet the president, as longtime Democratic strategist Bill Carrick observes, “has done remarkably well under the circumstances and the reason is Romney.” It’s all right to be rich, but not to be the political incarnation of Richie Rich. Frankly, you’re likely to ride that Jet Ski right onto the jagged rocks of defeat.