Romney's Wealth Problem

Americans have come to expect a certain patrician baseline from their political class. Congress is stocked full of millionaires, and in the 2008 campaign Joe Biden was considered working class for riding Amtrak, despite having a net worth in the hundreds of thousands. No one bats an eye now when Rick Santorum whines about his meager means on the debate stage then releases tax returns revealing that he rakes in over $900K a year.

Yet, Mitt Romney's wealth has served as an albatross to his campaign. We might be used to millionaires running for president, but Romney would rank among the richest handful of presidents if elected. His vast fortune is more than double the total worth of the past eight presidents combined. Newt Gingrich played on resentments of Romney's wealth to great success in South Carolina before dialing back his attacks once the Republican establishment turned on him, accusing the former speaker of employing leftist critiques of capitalism.

Romney's campaign has danced around the issue throughout the campaign, but over the weekend TPM's Pema Levy noticed a new strategy emerging from Romney and his friends:

On Friday, Romney had another one of his out-of-touch moments when he said that his wife Ann “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” But rather than try to walk back the comment, team Romney appears to have a new tactic for dealing with this problem.

When Romney and a surrogate were asked about Ann’s Cadillacs on the Sunday talk shows, their response was not to hide or apologize for Romney’s wealth. Instead, their message boiled down to: Yes he’s rich, get over it.

When questioned about the line on Fox News, Romney said, "If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America then they better vote for the other guy."

Mitt Romney wants to have it both ways. He sees himself as the fulfillment of the American ideal; the personification of the 1% that many middle class Americans believe they will one day reach, even if upward social mobility is increasingly difficult.

Yet, Romney also presents himself as attuned to the travails of normal working folks. He calls himself unemployed, claims to have once worried about receiving a pink slip, and litters his stump speeches with folksy tales of his normal upbringing (leaving out the years spent in a governors mansion) and starting his own, typical small business.

While the two personas appear to be at odds, Romney could get away with the contradiction if his wealth had been earned through other means. The self-made millionaire is a bedrock part of the American tale. But Romney's struggles are as much about how he accumulated his vast fortune. Private equity is a largely unknown sector of the American economy, and its mysterious practices have a whiff of the under-the-table financial Wall Street instruments that brought economic ruin to the country. Romney earned most of his $21 million 2010 income, not from direct earnings, but from gains accrued off his investments. Rather than exemplifying the entrepreneurial spirit Americans love, the continued growth of Romney's bank account highlights the divide between the normal working class and the new elite aristocracy whose fortunes continue to rise based on their already accumulated wealth. 

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