Has ‘Attacking Success’ Made Us Poor?

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Photo: Win McNamee/2012 Getty Images

Mitt Romney, casting about for replies to the Obama campaign’s broad-based assault on his business record, settled yesterday on the one that gives it the most natural comfort: Obama is attacking rich people. “President Obama attacks success,” said today, “and therefore under President Obama we have less success.” This is something wealthy conservatives believe deep in their bones and have been itching to hear Romney say. It is actually the confluence of a series of delusions. Let’s count them.

First, we have the notion that Obama has “attacked success.” Has he? Has Obama said it’s bad for people to get rich? No, he has never said anything of the sort — indeed, in deference to the exquisite sensitivities of even many rich Democrats, he goes out of his way in virtually every speech to praise the rich and embrace their triumphs. (“We believe the free market is one of the greatest forces for progress in human history; that businesses are the engine of growth; that risk-takers and innovators should be rewarded.”)

Okay, so Obama hasn’t attacked success. But he has raised taxes on the rich, hasn’t he? Well, no, not really. He has proposed to restore the top Clinton-era tax rate and bring us back to a decade when the crushing burden of a 39.6 percent top income tax rate destroyed the profit incentive. But he has not managed to implement it yet. And Republicans hope to prevent him from ever doing so, either by winning the 2012 elections or by using the threat of fiscal paralysis to force Obama to accede to extend the Bush tax cuts on the rich again.

Is this a niggling point? No, it isn’t. Republicans constantly talk about taxes as if the Bush tax cuts have ended, so that the bad economy since 2009 reflects upon Obama’s tax policies. If it reflects on any tax policies at all (I don’t think it does), it reflects on Bush’s, which remain in place.

Finally, we have the broader idea that something about what Obama is doing to the rich — proposing to raise their taxes, talking about them in less than uniformly worshipful tones, whatever — is at the root of our economic ills. This is the deepest belief among the angry conservative rich. Somehow Obama has displeased the rich, and they have in turn withheld their effort and genius, to the detriment of all.

But the truth is that the very rich are doing incredibly well, enjoying massive income gains. No hint or wisp of any policy, cross word, or bad vibe has inhibited the rich from continuing to amass huge economic gains. And without that piece of fact — without the basic underlying reality of the rich struggling economically under Obama — even the loosest overlap between Romney's formulation and the truth collapses. The centrality of the very rich to the success of the country as a whole is a matter of religious certainty among the American right, but the faith has not even the slightest bit of factual basis.