the national interest

Romney Caricatures Himself

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney talks to journalists after a campaign rally in Florence, South Carolina, January 17, 2012. South Carolina will hold its Republican primary on January 21, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Mitt Romney, in all likelihood, is going to walk away with his party’s presidential nomination. Yet from the standpoint of positioning himself for the general election, the primary season has been a disaster for him. Romney’s campaign has worked hard to avoid taking any substantive positions that would unduly burden him in a race against President Obama – no (additional, post-2007) policy flip-flops and an avoidance of any positions more right-wing than necessary to skate through the primary. That part has worked reasonably well. The utter failure is that Romney has come to be defined, through a recurring series of off-the-cuff gaffes, as a callous, out-of-touch rich man.

The latest is Romney’s response to questions about his tax returns. Romney declared that he would wait until April to release his returns, but previewed the event by predicting he pays a 15 percent federal tax rate, making him the beneficiary of conservatives’ favorite tax breaks, the capital gains preference and the carried-interest loophole, both of which allow very rich investors to pay a lower tax rate on their income than many people who make a fraction of their income. Romney compounded his problems by noting, as an aside, that he gets “not very much” income from speakers’ fees, a sum that turns out to be, um, $374,327.62.

Romney declared “I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me.” He described concern about rising inequality as “envy,” suggested only people who are independently wealthy should run for office, suggested inequality should be discussed only in “quiet rooms,” laid down a $10,000 bet in a debate with Rick Perry, deemed corporations to be people, and jokingly referred to himself as “unemployed.” He has done the work of an opposition researcher on himself.

Now, Romney does not deserve to be pilloried for all these gaffes. He was right about corporations consisting of people, and his professed love of firing people was an ode to the benefits of market competition, not of Burns-esque revelry in abusing his underlings. (A service provider you can’t replace has no incentive to provide better service, as any customer of the old cable monopoly can attest.) On the other hand, he clearly does deserve whatever grief he endures for the other statements, especially his dismissal of inequality.

Whatever the merits, the total self-portrait Romney has helped craft is utterly devastating: the scion of a wealthy executive, who helped create, and benefited from, revolutions in both the market economy and in public policy in the last three decades that favored the rich over the middle class, and who appears blithe about the gap between his privilege and the lot of most Americans.

As I’ve said before, Romney has been positively associated with “electability” because he is more electable than most of his rivals. But he is the one-eyed man in the land of the politically blind. Romney, by normal standards, is a terrible candidate. He is nowhere near as formidable as John McCain was four years before. The latest poll from PPP has his favorability rating at a miserable 35 percent positive, 53 percent negative. He may win – he probably will win if the economy dips back into recession – but he is a weak candidate who in many ways embodies the public’s distrust of his party.

Romney Caricatures Himself