Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary by playing the victim card. Now, Mitt Romney hopes to win the Republican nomination by doing the same thing. But while Gingrich's ploy of portraying himself as the latest conservative target of a liberal "elite" media assault is always a winner with the Republican faithful, Romney may not be so lucky with his gambit. After all, his uniquely toxic combination of immense wealth and near-total lack of empathy will make it hard for voters to believe Romney's claim that his foes are "attacking you."
Addressing his disappointed followers Saturday, Mitt Romney took a page out of the Linda Tripp/Christine O'Donnell playbook and announced, in essence, "I'm you." As Politico reported, Romney painted himself as everyman, the living incarnation of your American Dream (starting around the 4:40 mark above):
"Our president has divided the nation, engaged in class warfare and attacked the free enterprise system that has made America the economic envy of the world. We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise," Romney said.
Calling Gingrich's attacks on his Bain record "a mistake for our party and for our nation," Romney appealed to the hearts of Republican primary voters in his bid to win them back.
"When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they're not only attacking me, they're attacking every person who dreams of a better future," Romney said. "He's attacking you."
Despite the best efforts of his water-carriers like David Brooks, Ari Fleischer and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Romney's "I'm you" defense is going to be a very hard sell. After all, voters' obvious disdain for him has less to do with their mythical "envy" over his money and how he made it than their belief that Mitt Romney lives in a different world and simply doesn't care about theirs.
For confirmation, Mitt need only look to his ally and Massachusetts GOP Senator Scott Brown. Brown didn't merely call on Romney to release his tax returns (which he grudgingly announced he will do on Tuesday), but rejected any notion that the former Governor is like "you."
"He's in a category, a lot of those folks are in categories that we don't really understand."
Which is why Romney's repeated efforts to depict himself as a "man of the people" have failed so completely - and so comically. Romney, who this week explained that over the last decade "my income comes overwhelmingly from some investments made in the past," joked with jobless voters that "I'm also unemployed." The $250 million man similarly declared himself "part of the 80 to 90 percent of us" who are middle class, when just the "not very much" $374,000 he earned in speaking fees last year puts him in the top one percent of income earners. Whether or not he really enjoys firing people, Mitt Romney almost certainly was never in danger of either "getting a pink slip" or pooping in a bucket during his time as a missionary at a toney Paris mansion. (Who else would lecture a child about his plans to divvy up his estate among his 16 grandchildren or endorse rooftop canine waterboarding?) And there's no doubt that the man who spent $12 million to buy his third home (none of which are located on "the real streets of America") didn't win any friends when he offered this prescription for the housing market crisis:
"Don't try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom, allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up."
It's no wonder Mitt Romney believes income inequality should only be discussed in "quiet rooms" and his tax returns not discussed at all.
It's bad enough that Romney pays only about 15 percent of his income to Uncle Sam each year, a rate well below most middle class families. Worse still, the notorious "carried interest" exemption for private equity managers Romney wants to preserve taxes him not at the ordinary income rate of 35 percent but at the capital gains rate now half of what it was only 15 years ago. And as it turns out, most of Mitt's millions each year come from his controversial former employer, Bain Capital. As a man with a $100 million trust fund for his sons, millions more stashed in offshore Cayman Island accounts and an almost unprecedented IRA worth tens of millions of dollars, Mitt Romney is benefitting from a tax system that provides him with advantages few Americans knew existed. And to add insult to injury, Romney wants to eliminate the estate tax, creating a likely windfall topping $80,000,000 for his heirs, a gap in the U.S. Treasury that would have to be plugged by all other Americans.
Which is why Mitt Romney wasn't doing himself any favors when he brushed off repeated requests to reveal his tax returns:
"I don't put out which tooth paste I use either. It's not that I have something to hide."
But few suspect Mitt Romney has done anything illegal in the hidden tax returns he will release Tuesday. Instead, most Americans believe those IRS filings will simply confirm that Romney plays by a different set of rules. As Paul Krugman explained:
But the larger question isn't what Mitt Romney's tax returns have to say about Mitt Romney; it's what they have to say about U.S. tax policy. Is there a good reason why the rich should bear a startlingly light tax burden?
For they do. If Mr. Romney is telling the truth about his taxes, he's actually more or less typical of the very wealthy.
Or as Jack Blum, a Washington lawyer who is an authority on tax enforcement and offshore banking explained, "His personal finances are a poster child of what's wrong with the American tax system."
That means Mitt Romney is not like you. (As Seinfeld's George Costanza might say, it's not you, it's him.) Instead, his grandiose posturing as the embodiment of an American free-enterprise system supposedly "under assault" makes him more like Animal House's Otter defending his fraternity:
But you can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America.
Of course, with Mitt Romney, the joke is on us.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)