Mitt Romney aides with a 1968 campaign poster for George Romney. (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
President Obama got a rise out of Mitt Romney with the campaign-trail observation that "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth." Romney saw the remark (plausibly) as an attack on him and (not so plausibly, but ingeniously) as an attack on Romney's rags-to-Rambler father.
"I’m certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life," Romney harrumphed. "He was born poor. He worked his way to become very successful despite the fact that he didn’t have a college degree, and one of the things he wanted to do was to provide for me and my brother and sisters."
This is a more skillful riposte to the "Romney is rich" meme than the accusation that Obama was demonizing "success." Why? Because the intergenerational transfer of wealth and advantage is not just a Republican virtue; it's also part of the Democratic message that Americans have a right to hope that their children will be better off than they are.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012
Democrats may support the estate tax (a.k.a. the death tax), but the idea that parents should be prosperous enough to pave the way for their offspring is an all-American value. Earning money to cushion your own lifestyle is arguably selfish and Republican-like; being able to provide for your children is altruistic and admirable. George Romney is an easier sell to Democrats than Mitt Romney, who inherited the silver spoon.
That's not the only reason Obana should eschew the "silver spoon" applause line. It's trite, and it doesn't even have the twist that Ann Richards put on it when she accused President George H.W. Bush of being "born with a silver foot in his mouth" -- a mixed metaphor worthy of a metaphysical poet.
The problem with class warfare is that even middle-income Americans hope that their kids will be better off than they are. That's one of the reasons that, in Democratic parlance, they "play by the rules."
Obama would be wiser to argue that a more activist government has made it easier for one generation to endow the next by providing benefits like student loans, the GI Bill and child-care tax credits. Vote for me, he should say, and it's more likely that your child will be born with a silver (or at least pewter) spoon in his mouth.
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