There's nothing wrong with being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. It's what you do with that good fortune that matters. And that is at the heart of Mitt Romney's problem with the American people. With his proclamations and policies, the same man who denounces President Obama as "out of touch" and "Marie Antoinette," shows his aloof detachment and stunning incomprehension of the struggles Americans face every day. And yet, they don't begrudge him either his privileged past or financial success. Instead, they just want him to acknowledge the debt he owes to the society that made it possible.
Alas, Romney's empathy gap was once again on display in response to President Obama's comment about all Americans deserving a "fair shot," even those who, like him, weren't "born with a sliver spoon in [their] mouth." (That rhetorical device, by the way, is one Obama has been using for years.) As he has for months, Mitt Romney took umbrage:
"I'm certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life. 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 provide for me and for my brother and sisters."
But that's not all George Romney did. As Rick Perlstein recalled of Mitt's dad, the Michigan Governor and American Motors magnate (who ironically also met with that infamous community organizer Saul Alinsky):
As a CEO he would give back part of his salary and bonus to the company when he thought they were too high. He offered a pioneering profit-sharing plan to his employees. Most strikingly, asked about the idea that "rugged individualism" was the key to America's success, he snapped back, "It's nothing but a political banner to cover up greed."
That doesn't sound anything like the son who boasted that "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." And while Mitt Romney certainly never had to worry about "getting a pink slip," he stills gets a chuckle thinking about those who did when his father moved AMC jobs from Michigan to Wisconsin.
To be sure, Romney's repeated and comical failures to present himself as a "man of the people" have only deepened his yawning empathy gap. Romney, who 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 never pooped 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 surprise Mitt Romney believes income inequality should only be discussed in "quiet rooms." But it certainly didn't help matters when his wife Ann joked "Mitt doesn't even know the answer to that" when asked how many dressage horses she owns while her husband slanders Democrats as "the party of monarchists." It's no wonder his ally and Massachusetts GOP Senator Scott Brown urged Romney to release his tax returns:
"He's in a category, a lot of those folks are in categories that we don't really understand."
Brown was only saying what most Americans were thinking when he acknowledged that Romney is living in "a different world from me."
And in that world, the rules most Americans play by simply don't apply to Mitt Romney.
It's bad enough that the $250 million man Romney, pays less than 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. (As it turns out, most of Mitt's millions each year come from his controversial former employer, Bain Capital.) On top of his Cayman Island investments and past Swiss bank accounts, Romney has created a $100 million trust fund for his sons ... tax free. Thanks to some (apparently legal) chicanery on the part of his former employer, Mitt has also accumulated an IRA worth a reported $100 million. (The Romney camp even complained about that, worrying that recent tax code changes have "created a tax problem" for the former Massachusetts governor and asking, "Who wants to have $100 million in an IRA?") And largely unmentioned, Mitt wants to eliminate the inheritance income tax; a change that would not only save his clan over $80 million, but more than pay for the $45 million of his own money he spent on his 2008 campaign. As Romney has repeatedly boasted:
"I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more."
Of course, that's not the issue. Few suspect Mitt Romney has done anything illegal in the tax returns he has (and hasn't) released. Instead, most Americans believe those IRS filings would 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.
So typical, in fact, that Mr. and Mrs. Romney really don't want to talk about them. After all, before he grudgingly released two years of returns back in January, Mitt protested:
"I don't put out which tooth paste I use either. It's not that I have something to hide."
"I understand Mitt's going to release his tax forms this week. I want to remind you where our riches are: our riches are with our families," Ann Romney said. "Our riches, you can value them, in the children we have and in the grandchildren we have. So that's where our values are and that's where our heart is -- and that's where we measure our wealth."
As ThinkProgress noted at the time, Mrs. Romney was not pleased about Mitt having to follow in the footsteps of every modern presidential candidate (including his father George Romney) and release his tax returns:
At an event at Freedom Tower in Miami this afternoon, Ann Romney said "unfortunately" the world now knows how "successful in business" Romney has been.
"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...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. He's attacking you."
No, they're not. They're simply suspicious of a man to whom much was given, much more was earned on the backs of American workers and to whom much more will flow (most of it tax-free). And looking at Romney's plan to savage the American social safety net while draining trillions from the U.S. Treasury in order to deliver another massive tax cut windfall for the wealthy, voters are just taking Mitt at his word that he's "not concerned about the very poor."
In Mitt Romney's defense, he has been willing to give back, at least to a point. After all, the notoriously frugal Bain Capital founder shut down his company to help lead a search to help find a colleague's missing teenage daughter. When his father passed away, Mitt donated his inheritance to charity. (In the early days of their marriage, however, Ann Romney avoided the "dignity of work" because "Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time. The stock came from Mitt's father.") And as a glance at his charitable giving in his tax returns shows, he more than complies with his church's 10 percent tithing requirement.
But Romney couldn't leave well enough alone. Instead, he claimed that all told, he paid not 13.9 percent in taxes, but a figure "really closer to 45 or 50 percent":
"Well, actually, I released two years of taxes and I think the average is almost 15 percent. And then also, on top of that, I gave another more 15 percent to charity. When you add it together with all of the taxes and the charity, particularly in the last year, I think it reaches almost 40 percent that I gave back to the community. One of the reasons why we have a lower tax rate on capital gains is because capital gains are also being taxed at the corporate level. So as businesses earn profits, that's taxed at 35 percent, then as they distribute those profits as dividends, that's taxed at 15 percent more. So, all total, the tax rate is really closer to 45 or 50 percent."
No doubt, Mitt would bet you $10,000 that his friends—the ones who own NFL and NASCAR teams—view their tax returns the same way. As for the people in polyester and plastic rain ponchos, they might feel differently.
And that, in a nutshell, is Mitt Romney's problem. There's nothing wrong with having a silver spoon in your mouth. But Romney just doesn't have the awareness—or the decency—to acknowledge it, how it got there and why voters would want to hear more about how he would give back to the country that made it all possible.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)