Mitt Romney's Entitlement Problem


Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect

Mitt Romney address a crowd in Columbia, South Carolina.

Obviously, Mitt Romney’s tax returns are gold for the Obama campaign, which can accurately describe the former Massachusetts governor as emblematic of the extreme wealth disparities in the United States. His income of $20.9 million in 2011—nearly all of it from profits, dividends, or interest from investments—is a staggering amount of money. For context, as Bloomberg’s Richard Rubin points out, “In 2008, according to the IRS, the median adjusted gross income was $33,048, which Romney made in less than a day.”

Thanks to the Occupy movement—with the help of opportunistic politicians—income inequality is on the political agenda, and in this environment, immense wealth is a huge political liability. A smart candidate would use this fact and retool his message away from the glories of free-market capitalism and toward one that—at the very least—acknowledged that Americans were uncomfortable with massive disparities of wealth.

But, like a petulant teenager, Romney has gone in the opposite direction, lambasting the country for even thinking about income equality. “You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare,” he said on the Today Show last week. And in presidential debates, Romney has lashed out against anyone who so much as notes the scale of his wealth, and how he earned it. “I know the Democrats want to go after the fact that I’ve been successful,” Romney said at last week’s debate in Charleston, South Carolina. “I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”

If there’s a word that describes this attitude, it’s entitlement. Never mind that Romney was the privileged son of a power politician, or that he made his way through school and early adulthood with considerable help from his wealthy family, Romney deserves his wealth, and anyone who says otherwise is out to punish the successful and destroy free enterprise.

From his refusal to engage his opponents for much of the primary, to his transparent pandering on virtually every issue under the sun, this sense of entitlement has carried over to every inch of his presidential campaign. Indeed, it was immortalized when he exclaimed that he was “running for office, for Pete’s sake,” during a debate last October.

As fellow Massachusettsan Martha Coakley could tell him, entitlement is a dangerous thing to have when you’re running for office. Voters, though often uninformed, aren’t stupid, and can sense when a candidate views their participation as ancillary to her victory. Newt Gingrich’s sudden surge in South Carolina can be attributed to this fact—his win was a rebuke to Romney and the political establishment he represents.

Romney can recover from this, but it requires him to dispense with his entitlement, and treat voters as supporters to be won, not obstacles to endure. Does Romney have the ability to do this? Absolutely. Will he go for it? I won’t hold my breath.