Sunday, July 15, 2012

How the Other Half Runs
It's pretty much a given that any sharp elbows thrown by a Democrat in a national campaign will send the pundit class into fainting spells and occasion monocles popping out in shock all across the Beltway. Most anticipated the blow would land against Mitt Romney's Mormonism, the way in which "he's not like us" most evident to the paid observers of politics. But the Obama team is pretty smart, and has (to my eye) completely avoided discussion of religion in favor of a much more palatable point of difference: Romney's decades-long immersion in the economic hyper-elite. It turns out the way he's really different is in the rules that apply.

For the better part of two weeks now, coverage of the election has turned on Romney's foreign investments and just when he left Bain Capital, about which he's told some different stories at different times. Despite the possible overstatement of the Obama campaign that Romney might have broken the law, I'd be shocked if he left himself in any jeopardy: the guy is too smart and too careful to make that kind of mistake. But his Friday pushback, making five TV appearances on different networks hoping to kill the story and jujitsu the issue into an a focus on the president's negative tactics, seems to have failed. I happened to see one of the appearances, on CNN, at the gym Friday night; with the sound off, all I focused on was Romney's eyes, rapidly blinking like any bad liar.

The through-line of all the stories about Romney's wealth--his Bain activities both before 1999 and during the period when his role was in question, the overseas accounts, the tax return issue that, to the growing frustration of his media cheering section, he can't dismiss and won't defuse (I almost wonder if he's standing on principle, just to see what that's like)--is that Romney has maximized his wealth by taking advantage of every loophole, every special-interest tax provision, every service available to those of his class. Probably none of this is illegal, and as far as I can tell none of it is even unusual in that world. (If you buy that Romney really did take a "leave of absence" from Bain to run the Salt Lake Olympics effort and planned to return, it was responsible and appropriate for him to sit in on board meetings of Bain companies, so he'd be able to jump back in when the time came.) What the public isn't used to is a candidate seeking election after decades spent in full-throttle pursuit of every last dollar.

Absent a track record of achievement in office (by his own choice, in the case of healthcare reform), and without a particularly appealing personality, Romney is trying to run on his business record. But he didn't make anything and he didn't invest in communities, at least not in any kind of conscious or intentional way; rather, he more often destroyed communities, as this ad powerfully suggests. So he's trying to both run on that record, and hide from it. There are probably politicians out there who can pull off that kind of trick, like Bill Clinton. But Romney isn't one of them.