Thursday, August 25, 2011

Memo to Mitt: It's Not the House

Liberals have had some fun this week at Mitt Romney's expense after the Washington Post reported that Romney "is planning to nearly quadruple the size of his $12 million California beachfront mansion." Rachel Maddow had a segment on her program Tuesday arguing that Romney was going "full Thurston"--a reference to Thurston Howell III, the millionaire castaway played by Jim Backus on the 1960s sitcom "Gilligan's Island."

David Frum tweeted on Monday: "I hope none of those people criticizing Mitt Romney's house voted for John Kerry." Romney's net worth is somewhere between $190 and $250 million dollars, according to his campaign, and Kerry's was estimated to be at least $167 million in 2009, so the two are certainly comparable.

Frum seems to think this is an argument-ender: if you supported Kerry's candidacy, you can't be critical of Romney. But he misses something essential: the problem is not that Romney is rich. It is that he is rich and advocates policies that primarily advance the interests of the rich.

Americans have never had a problem with having wealthy political leaders. George Washington, according to biographer Joseph Ellis, had an "insatiable hunger for land" (at his death he had land in five states, the District of Columbia, and the Ohio territory) and was when he died "one of the richest men in America."

Andrew Jackson was also a wealthy man who had extensive landholdings and dabbled in a wide variety of business ventures. Robert Remini tells us that by the time he first ran for president in 1824, Jackson "was a fairly rich man." (Like Washington, Jackson also owned more than a hundred human beings held as slaves.) That is not, of course, how Americans remember Jackson: he remains the champion of the "common man." Policies, not personal wealth, are what people care about.

We see the same thing in the 20th century: three of the wealthiest presidents were Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. These are not men who, like Washington and Jackson, made their own fortunes. They were all three born to wealth (as Romney was). By and large, Americans did not hold their inherited wealth against them, precisely because they made themselves into champions of the average person.

TR made his mark as a powerful president by taking on J. P. Morgan's Northern Securities railroad trust (the case that gave him the misleading nickname of "trust-buster"). Most Americans never knew that Morgan made his peace with TR and even contributed to his campaign in 1904. They knew TR intervened in a United Mine Workers strike that resulted in higher wages and lower hours, and that he signed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act to protect consumers.

FDR, it need hardly be pointed out, was considered a "traitor to his class" for his efforts to alleviate the ravages of the Great Depression. He denounced "business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking" and "Government by organized money." In his 1936 speech accepting the Democratic nomination, FDR said:
we will continue to seek to improve working conditions for the workers of America--to reduce hours over-long, to increase wages that spell starvation, to end the labor of children, to wipe out sweatshops. Of course we will continue every effort to end monopoly in business, to support collective bargaining, to stop unfair competition, to abolish dishonorable trade practices.
When political leaders talk (and more importantly, act) in this way, no one cares how much personal wealth they have.

JFK was also born in wealth, but he ran in 1960 as the champion of FDR's New Deal. Like his predecessors, he knew that policies exclusively favoring the wealthy were self-defeating: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

What sorts of policies does Romney advocate?

On extending unemployment benefits, he's against it: "The indisputable fact is that unemployment benefits, despite a web of regulations, actually serve to discourage some individuals from taking jobs, especially when the benefits extend across years." The implication is that there are plenty of jobs available, and people just are not taking them. He should try telling that to the thousands of people who camped out for a job fair in Atlanta last week.

On the payroll tax cut that President Obama insisted on last December: "only the employee's payroll taxes [are] reduced — the portion paid by the employer is to remain the same.... the payroll tax deal will add to the deficit." (Romney did not note that extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which he supports, also adds to the deficit--evidently only tax cuts for regular folks do that.)

On extending that payroll tax cut: "Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did not flatly rule out an extra year for the payroll tax cut, but he 'would prefer to see the payroll tax cut on the employer side' to spur job growth, his campaign said." It's not clear if that means adding an employer tax cut to the worker's cut, or raising the employee's taxes and giving the break instead to the employer, but it sounds like the latter.

This is the context for the reaction to Romney's new California mansion. Americans do not begrudge their leaders their wealth. They do have a problem with people who say tax cuts are only for wealthy "job creators" and who think unemployment insurance makes people lazy. And rightly so. You reap what you sow, Mitt.

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