In Coming Class Warfare, Romney Hopes His Vest Is Bullet-Proof

Monday, January 16, 2012

Even if he had the charisma of Ronald Reagan and the personality of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney would still have trouble relating to average working men and women. Almost all super-successful Republicans do. And wealthy Republicans who grew up in exclusive suburban enclaves, attended Ivy League colleges, and achieved fabulous success in business at an early age, as Romney did, have an especially hard time relating.

So if you're trying to figure out how Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is doing in the next few months, watch closely how he handles the issue of increasing disparities of wealth among Americans and how he defends himself against the inevitable "you're a filthy rich man" attacks from the Democrats.

To date, the former Massachusetts governor seems to be settling into the classic Republican position that Republicans don't have a wealth problem, Democrats have any envy problem.

As Romney put it during his victory speech in New Hampshire, President Obama is a "leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy."

But not to worry, folks, there will be no class warfare from this owner of an estate on Lake Winnipesaukee. On the contrary, Romney wants to "lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success."

This could work. Americans are an optimistic lot. They still rightly believe this is the land of opportunity, and they still rightly distrust government as the fixer of all problems. But it won't be easy for Romney to glide over the battlefields in the intensifying "war" among economic classes, as prosecuted by Democrats and Republicans alike.

(Class warfare is like negative political advertising: everybody says they disapprove of it, and everybody responds to it.)

Consider the findings of the latest survey by the Pew Research Center, released Jan. 11, which indicate that roughly two-thirds of Americans now believe there are "strong conflicts" between rich and poor in our nation. Two years ago, when Pew did a similar survey, 47% of respondents said there were strong rich-poor conflicts.

Consider a U.S. Commerce Department report from last August showing that corporate profits increased by 8.3% in 2009 and 10.8% in 2010, two years when wages continued to decline as a percentage of national income. "That continued decline may help explain the economic worries of many Americans who have jobs but still fear they are falling behind," New York Times reporter Floyd Norris observed.

And consider the declining ratio of employment to population: in June 2007, some 63% of adults were employed; two years later, 59.4% were employed; and in June 2011, 58.2% had jobs.

No millionaire has ever looked to me for advice, but if I were Mitt Romney, I'd be careful using that "envy" line. A 58-year-old man who's been out of work for two years does not want to be scolded for believing the system is stacked against him. And a single mom who's lost her home to foreclosure does not want a lecture on the virtues of a system that bailed out the banks first.

Republicans like Gov. Romney believe this nation can grow itself out of the deep hole it's in, while moderates of both major parties -- Hello, Alan Simpson! Hello, Erskine Bowles! -- believe a mixture of tax increases, tax reform, and restraints on big entitlement programs like Medicare will do the trick.

The GOP and its supporters will spend tens of millions of dollars trying to convince Americans Obama is a crypto-socialist bent on turning the U.S. into what Romney calls a "European-style entitlement society," while Obama, exploiting the tremendous, natural advantages of an incumbent president, will plant himself firmly on that middle/moderate, Simpson-Bowles-like ground.

Amazing, isn't it, how much this presidential election is starting to look like the 2010 gubernatorial election in Massachusetts, when another aggressive, business-savvy Republican took on a centrist Democrat with middling job approval ratings?

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