Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Romney's box

In a towering miscalculation of timing, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finally released his tax returns late Monday, a day before President Obama delivered a stunning, sterling State of the Union address that focused on the economic imbalance of most Americans’ income and the kind of income that made Romney’s tax returns possible.

If you haven‘t heard, Romney’s returns — the ones he swore up and down he wouldn’t release until April — revealed an income of $21.7 million in 2010 and $20.9 million in 2011, every penny of it derived from profits, dividends and investment interest. Not a dime came from actual wages.

According to the returns, released to The Washington Post, Romney paid a 13.9 percent tax rate, or $3 million, in 2010. His 2011 estimate is $3.2 million, which is about 15.4 percent, as he’s told reporters in recent days. Romney apparently has a Swiss bank account and foreign investments in Luxembourg, Ireland and the Cayman Islands. All told, the candidate's overall worth is estimated to be somewhere between $190 million and $250 million, and includes money from his previous relationship with Bain Capital, the private-equity asset strip-mining concern Romney founded in 1984.

We can be sure that, now that the Romneys’ ocean of wealth is out in the open, there’ll be a huge pushback within the campaign to take the issue off the table for discussion by the public and, certainly, the media. But Romney’s wealth problem goes beyond the reluctant disclosure of his taxes; his bigger challenge is to show how he can continue to self-identify as a populist in touch with the financial pain of the country he presumes to lead when his own financial house is, simply put, in another world from the people of this country altogether.

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In offering various policy prescriptions for the economy, Romney derides his critics as embracing “the politics of envy,” claiming that people are out to get him because he’s rich. He’s frequently sought to justify his work with Bain Capital by saying that, in a free-market economy, it may be necessary to lay off, say, 1,000 workers in order to save 3,000 jobs down the road.

Mathematically, it’s the sort of ends-justify-the-means, burn-down-the-village-to-save-it argument that seems at first blush to make sense. We’re led to believe it’s just part of the brutal process of business in the Private Sector.

But throughout this campaign, Romney’s shown a tone-deafness about the emotional impact of business’ rapacious tendencies toward ordinary wage earners, and how those tendencies are viewed in the public eye. The unforced error? He revels in the Darwinian aspect of his work at Bain, and its consequences, without much thought to the Dickensian perception of his work at Bain, how it looks to the American public. And presidential politics is nothing if not a matter of perception.

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You want tone-deaf? Consider how Romney blithely tossed out to reporters on Jan. 17 that the $374,328 he earned in speaking fees between February 2010 and February 2011 is “not very much,” at a time when that very much money would utterly transform any one of a preponderance of lives in the country he hopes to lead.

You want tone-deaf? Look at how the intricate aspects of Romney’s taxes — more than 500 pages stuffed with the exotica of investment vehicles in countries from Ireland to the Cayman Islands — run so counter to the tax-filing experiences of everyday people in America, people who sit at the dining room table with a year’s receipts and statements, praying that the bite from Uncle Sam won’t be too bad this year.

They can’t relate to Romney — they never could to start with; now, after the release of a tax return that’s the size of a small-town phone directory (and revealing personal assets equal to those of a small town), they really can’t relate to Romney. And presidential politics is nothing if not a matter of finding a candidate you can relate to as an ordinary American voter.

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There’s a gathering narrative that, for all his purported expertise in the Private Sector, Mitt Romney is also the unfortunate beneficiary of the public’s perception of the downside of a free-market economy — that, rather than taking credit for creating jobs, Romney is seen as responsible for (or certainly complicit in) the ruthless efficiencies that take jobs away. Right or wrong, his business acumen is defined — in the public eye, anyway — by what’s been lost or downsized, rather than by what’s been gained or enhanced.

This may be just a messaging problem or something more foundational to his campaign, but for now it’s clear there’s a fundamental disconnect between Mitt Romney and the populism he professes.

And there’s nothing to be done about this. There’s no way to spin or tweak this narrative because it’s basic  to what Mitt Romney is, and central to what he believes he brings to the 2012 presidential campaign.

So when Romney says (at the Jan. 19 CNN debate in Charleston, N.C.) that he’s “someone who has lived in the real streets of America,” it comes across as utterly laughable to most Americans, who know good and damn well that Mitt Romney’s feet never touched the sidewalks of the real streets of America — not until he decided to run for president, anyway.

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One reason why the whole tax-returns issue had been so problematic is because it ran counter to the narrative Romney assiduously promotes. He’s been screaming his Experience in the Private Sector from the rooftops since his campaign began, but one of the responsibilities of those in business is timely release of the documents that reveal the true status of a business.

Romney’s resistance to the tax returns’ release — by the unwritten law of campaign protocol (a law his father was instrumental in creating) a necessary thing to do — seems contrary to the behavior of someone with private-sector prowess. It suggests he’s trying to rewrite the rules of campaign tradition for the most expedient of reasons. Never mind the fact that it suggests he’s, well, hiding something.

George Romney released 12 years of tax returns to Look magazine at about the same time he announced his candidacy for the presidency in Detroit on Nov. 18, 1967, well before the primaries began. What the hell was his son waiting for?

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The other example of his tone-deafness could be the most problematic. It stems from Romney’s tireless attack on President Obama and his economic policies and their consequences — policies that Romney says aren’t working, policies that actually are working.

On Jan. 24, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the rate of those Americans who were out of work in 37 states — 74 percent of the country — had dropped in December. And unemployment had dropped in 46 states that month from a year earlier at the same time.

The National Retail Federation, a leading retail group, reported recently that retail sales are expected to increase by 3.4 percent in 2012, topping $2.5 trillion, and marking the third straight year of recovery for consumer spending.

Home sales climbed 5 percent in December to 4.6 million; it was the third straight monthly increase, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Kiplinger’s Ecomonic Outlook forecast predicts that the U.S. economy will grow about 2.3 percent this year.

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None of this is panacea; we’re a long way from being out of the woods. But progress, however fitful, is being made. And progress — an improving national economy — is Mitt Romney’s worst nightmare. An economy on the rebound organically undercuts the central purpose, the reason for being, of the Romney 2012 campaign for the White House.

And a campaign without a reason for being is a campaign is trouble.

He may try to spin this election into a referendum on conservative values, or on Obama’s performance as a global ambassador for American exceptionalism. But there’s scant hope of Romney making a convincing pivot to recast himself as a social conservative.

Besides the fact that many Republicans doubt Romney’s sincerity about being a social conservative — his track record as a moderate governor of Massachusetts is the reason why — there’s the inconvenient problem of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum having convincingly claimed that high ground already. The economy has been Romney's ace in the hole, and now there’s nowhere else for him to go. There’s no other mount for Romney to ride but the one-trick pony he rode in on.

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It may not join those other titular-possessive philosophical principles we’ve come to know — Occam’s razor, Hobson’s choice — but there’s a phrase that deserves a place among the theories that distill what’s otherwise hard to get the mind around:

When you deeply oppose something as a politician, you are deeply compromised when that something gains traction in the world around you. When your campaign is built on pushing back on policies, you’re in trouble when those policies begin to bear fruit. This is Romney’s box.

The presidential candidate is locked in the 24-carat amber of his own wealth, trapped in the prison of his claims to being singularly able to repair the nation’s economic woes, even as the economy improves around him, and without him. He's become a captive of the vast wealth that empowers him as a human being, even as it isolates him from campaigning as an ostensibly populist candidate. As “someone who has lived in the real streets of America.”

To this point, Mitt Romney’s campaign foundation has been simple: I’ll Fix the Economy. With the economy starting to make advances, according to a variety of sources in a position to know, the rationale for his whole campaign gets shakier all the time.

Image credits: Romney: NBC News. Bush-Obama graph: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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