There is the family-values Christian and there is the only presidential candidate ever to have a Swiss bank account. The Republican candidate’s tax payments, moreover, are shrouded in mystery. So Barack Obama should have an easy win. Right? Not necessarily, argues J BROOKS SPECTOR.
In America right now it’s summertime but, contrary to what George Gershwin said, the living has not been particularly easy for many people. The economy remains in the doldrums, with persistent unemployment well over 8% in many states (although a state like North Dakota has unemployment about three points below the national average). A tremendous heatwave, enveloping nearly the entire country, together with some astonishingly powerful summer storms, has made life miserable for millions in the past two weeks. To make things worse, power grids were off-line for days on end in the midst of this heatwave – perhaps most persistently and severely in the city of Washington and its surrounding suburbs, affecting millions.
For many, perhaps most, people, it’s just been too darn hot to make too much time for politics. In any case, July is usually a near-sacred time for vacations in America – even if funds are very tight for many households. As a result, not paying too much attention to the national election bearing down on the country in four months’ time is part of a national mental health break – at least until the party conventions roll in at the end of August and beginning of September.
Even the two presidential candidates are taking vacations – albeit mingled with some generous dollops of close-up, “retail politics” – and fundraisers, always the fundraisers, wherever money can be raised. Barack Obama has been active in strongly Democratic California, Illinois and New York (to tap – or try to - traditional supporters from the entertainment and IT spheres).
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has been at the summer-holiday gathering points for the many of the wealthy such as the Hamptons on Long Island, New York, for his own fundraisers. (At one of these, a slick, pink Ferrari apparently drew lots of media attention – in place of the candidate.) Here and there, Romney has also spent time at his New England waterside home – including some well-publicised photos with him piloting a high-powered motorboat across the lake. (Note to senior Romney staff: being photographed engaged in an elite, money-gobbling sport may not have been the right photo op – just ask John Kerry about his windsurfing adventure).
Meanwhile, when he has not been trying to raise big bucks for the campaign, Obama has been out and about on a multi-state, Midwestern, battleground states, grassroots bus tour in a behemoth of a Secret Service-blessed tour bus. The Obama cavalcade has been stopping at truck stops, restaurants and neighbourhood pubs to connect - always connect - with that sometimes-mythic “real America” for the ever-present TV cameras. The point of this adventure for the Obama campaign, of course, is to draw the sharpest possible contrast between Obama as champion of the embattled middle class and Romney’s position as an avatar of the unfeeling rich – the 98% versus the rest.
Defining one’s opponent and thus seizing the electoral narrative is the governing tactic in what still shapes up to be a very close, very hard-fought election in November. Besides the policy arguments, this is behind the new Obama proposal to let the temporary tax reduction for people earning over $250,000/year lapse while extending the reduction for everybody else.
Of course, by now, most US voters probably think they have a pretty good idea of who Barack Obama really is – except for maybe Donald Trump and similar zanies who remain convinced he is really a secret radical Muslim socialist who was born in Kenya or Indonesia – but Mitt Romney’s portrait remains less clear for many. Is he really the stereotypical unfeeling, rich guy with a sense of “he can make a million so everyone else can too”, or is he a man with a strong (albeit “do it on your own”) work ethic, and a sense of personal rectitude and religiously grounded virtue?
Well, if columnists and commentators like Paul Krugman are anything to by, Romney is the former. In his hotly debated and already much-commented-upon Monday column in the New York Times, Krugman measures Romney against his father, the late George Romney, a Michigan governor and automobile manufacturing executive, and the son does not come off very well. And this is without dredging up that old tale about how he treated the family dog while the Romney clan went on a self-drive vacation to Canada several decades ago, or his changing policies on GLBT issues, abortion, and his support for medical insurance mandates (as governor of Massachusetts) – until he announced for the presidency.
Writing about Romney’s personal financial history, Krugman argues that “the contrast between George Romney and his son Mitt — a contrast both in their business careers and in their willingness to come clean about their financial affairs — dramatically illustrates how America has changed” since George Romney ran for the Republican nomination in 1968. The columnist compares Romney the elder’s career in manufacturing, innovating new products – well-engineered compact cars – that gave an American company its best years - before its fortunes finally went sour after Romney left the company. Yes, George Romney became a wealthy man by virtue of his efforts, but over a decade’s worth of tax records, released when he became a presidential candidate, show he paid an average of 37% of his income in taxes.
Krugman compares this to Mitt Romney’s business career at Bain Capital – the leveraged buyout firm he helped found - and then ran for many years. As the columnist wrote: “Unlike his father, however, Mr Romney didn’t get rich by producing things people wanted to buy; he made his fortune through financial engineering that seems in many cases to have left workers worse off, and in some cases driven companies into bankruptcy.” Moreover, Krugman notes, Mitt has largely kept his personal finances under cover – with his taxes paid at the 14% rate in the one-year’s worth of full tax returns he’s actually released so far.
Putting in the knife just a bit deeper, Krugman writes: “Put it this way: Has there ever before been a major presidential candidate who had a multimillion-dollar Swiss bank account, plus tens of millions invested in the Cayman Islands, famed as a tax haven?” Krugman adds that “there are potentially legitimate reasons for parking large sums of money in overseas tax havens. But we don’t know which if any of those legitimate reasons apply in Mr Romney’s case — because he has refused to release any details about his finances. This refusal to come clean suggests that he and his advisers believe that voters would be less likely to support him if they knew the truth about his investments.”
Over the weekend, Democratic Party surrogates for Obama also took to the political talk TV shows to make this same set of points – pointedly. As Illinois Democratic senator Dick Durbin told the viewers of CBS’ programme Face the Nation, Romney is “the first and only candidate for the president of the United States with a Swiss bank account, with tax shelters, with tax avoidance schemes that involve so many foreign countries.” Sounds pretty sinister, that.
For his part, Krugman then ties this closeted personal financial history to the Romney economic policy agenda, arguing the only constant in Romney’s proposed policies “involves cutting tax rates on the very rich….” Calling for Romney to divulge his real financial situation, Krugman concludes “unless he does reveal the truth about his investments, we can only assume that he’s hiding something seriously damaging”.
While there clearly will be no successful effort to argue Romney is ethically damaged goods broadly speaking – his personal religious history, his record with the Salt Lake City Olympics, the stalwart family-man saga would all argue against those views. But for Democrats, clearly, the point is to argue he is too much “the now you see it now you don’t” financier who has unconsciously been cavalier with the lives of hard-working men and women. And this will come as Democrats also try to pin on him the label of intellectual father, while governor of Massachusetts, of Obamacare – a dilemma for a candidate like Romney who has taken a stance in opposition to the law even after the Supreme Court rendered its judgment recently.
Taken together with what is already known about Romney’s personal circumstances and his wealth – that auto elevator in the California home to accommodate all those Cadillacs, the hob-knobbing with the rich, the general air of lese-majesty that emanates from too many of his public pronouncements, and the claim that growing a business is the real secret of being president, even if it’s a business that ended up outsourcing jobs to China – the Democrats would seem to have an easy meal of it, especially if they can shape the contest into a battle over economic equity and fairness.
Imagine, for example, what Harry Truman, Bill Clinton or even John Kennedy would have made of such evidence and their reach-backs to the history of the Democratic Party as the party of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and “it’s the economy, stupid”.
But, as always, things are never quite that simple in the real political world, as opposed to an easier counterfactual one. Obama is stuck with defending an economic recovery that still seems to be on life-support, in the views of many voters. For Obama, now, it is increasingly hard to defend this record nearly four years after assuming the presidency. And it will be increasingly tough to argue it is still ole’ George W Bush’s fault – even if many economists would tend to agree with that point. The task ahead, still, for the Obama team, then, is to define Romney convincingly and permanently as the archetype of an uncaring rich man whose personal biases and circumstances infect his policy prescriptions.
Or, as Chris Cillizza argued in Monday’s Washington Post: “At the core of Obama’s argument for re-election is that he took over in 2009 at a time of massive upheaval, with the country teetering on the verge of economic collapse. ‘What we didn’t realise at the time was we were going to be hit by the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes,’ Obama said last week during a campaign swing in Ohio. ‘And that’s been tough on a lot of folks’…. But in politics, arguing a hypothetical that didn’t wind up happening is difficult. People struggle to imagine how much worse things could be than they actually were/are.”
But Cillizza adds that the second challenge for Obama is his administration’s present difficulties with the economy. “With the unemployment rate holding steady above 8 percent for the past three months — it was 8.2 percent in June — and job creation stagnating during that time as well, Obama must walk a fine line. He has to acknowledge that things for lots of people aren’t better while also trying to suggest that the policies he has put in place are — slowly but surely — making things better, even if people don’t see it just yet.” It has to be a finesse that also has enormous, telling impact to make it work. Translating this into actual campaign terms, they need to turn the battle into a fight over whose vision of the future is the better one – rather than a judgment on what has happened so far.
On this point, Mark Penn, the longtime Democratic strategist and advisor to Hillary Rodham Clinton in her bid for the 2008 presidential nomination, says: “The most credible argument is that he has the best path forward, having successfully avoided economic Armageddon.”
Celinda Lake, veteran Democratic Party pollster, adds to this point: “In this economy, Romney has to be disqualified” so that Obama can be re-elected.
Going forward, Obama’s task is to turn the election away from being a referendum on what has been accomplished under his administration so far (and why a Republican majority in the House of Representatives made that litany such a skimpy list of accomplishments). Then he has to transform the election into a debate over which man – Ritchie Rich or Everyman’s representative - has the right principles and personal qualities to lead the country - going forward for the next four years.
By contrast, Romney’s task is, simpler. He has to convince voters in the crucial battlegrounds - states like Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and maybe Pennsylvania - that he is just more competent than the other guy, and that voters need to switch now. DM
Democrats want Romney to explain offshore accounts in the AP;
Does Romney Have a Florida Problem? At the New Republic magazine;
The GOP is screwing Romney in the Economist;
Who Can Fix the Economy: The Loner or the Consensus Builder? at Time Magazine;
Obama Pushes Extension of Middle-Class Tax Cuts on Slate;
Photo: George Romney (Wikimedia Commons), Mitt Romney (Reuters)