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Making a campaign issue of Mitt Romney's wife and wealth

April 12, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann at a campaign rally in Michigan in February.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann at a campaign… (Gerald Herbert / Associated…)

Hilary Rosen is a Democratic "operative," as they like to say in the District of Columbia, but she's not likely to be hired anytime soon by President Obama's reelection campaign. Her snarky critique of Ann Romney's fitness to advise her husband about women's economic issues -- saying on CNN that the stay-at-home mother of five has "never worked a day in her life" -- has drawn denunciations from top Obama campaign advisors and a subtle remonstration from Michelle Obama, who tweeted, "Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected."

But Rosen's reasoning seems little more than an extension of an increasingly explicit assertion by the Obama camp that Mitt Romney is too wealthy to be president. Just as Rosen claimed that Ann Romney's wealth made her blind to the challenges of mothers who need a paycheck to make ends meet, the president's campaign has been arguing -- sometimes subtly, sometimes ham-handedly -- that Mitt Romney's wealth makes him incapable of grasping the challenges faced by average Americans.

Obama himself hasn't said much about the presumptive GOP nominee, who ranks as one of the wealthiest presidential candidates in recent decades. But Vice President Joe Biden has. Here's one example: "I can't remember a presidential candidate in the recent past who seems not to understand, by what he says, what ordinary middle-class people are thinking about and are concerned about," Biden said in a televised interview April 1.

Speaking in New Hampshire on Thursday, Biden made a more overt reference to the Romneys' wealth. "Gov. Romney calls the president out of touch," Biden said, then asked, "Hey, how many of y'all have a Swiss bank account?"

The administration has also started calling GOP support for extending the Bush tax cuts for top earners the "Romney rule," reminding voters that the Romneys would be among the beneficiaries. The phrase is a play on Obama's proposed "Buffett Rule," which would require those earning $1 million or more to pay at least 30% of their income in taxes.

In short, the administration wants voters to look at Mitt Romney and see someone too wealthy to feel what they feel. But there's a fundamental flaw in that argument. Voters don't want someone like them to be president. They want someone exceptional, someone with the credentials to lead the world's sole superpower.

Coming from a privileged background has never been a disqualifier in presidential politics -- consider the Bush family, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts. Maybe that's because voters recognize that no candidate can have personal experiences that match those of all the diverse groups in America. So they don't expect candidates necessarily to empathize with them. Instead, they look for a candidate whom they trust to do what's right for the broadest group of people.

That's where policies come in, as opposed to biographies. As far as "ordinary middle-class people" are concerned, the most salient facts about Romney are his economic plan, his desire to cut taxes, his pledge to stop the 2010 healthcare reform law from going into effect, his support for overhauling Medicare and raising the retirement age -- in other words, the things he says he would do in the Oval Office that would have a real effect on their lives. If those policies were merely an outgrowth of Romney's wealth, there would be no difference politically between him and George Soros or Warren Buffett.

Republicans have complained that Obama's push to raise the top marginal tax rates amounts to class warfare. I don't think that arguing for greater progressivity in the tax code is an attack on the rich any more than calling for a flat tax or lower levies on capital gains is an attack on the poor. But harping on a candidate's wealth seems designed to encourage an unhealthy amount of class envy.

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