More Money, More Problems: Why Mitt Romney Can’t Talk About His Wealth

The economic indicators as of late have been discouraging, so the winner of this year’s Presidential election is still very much in doubt. What has long been and remains clear, however, is that if Mitt Romney wins, it’ll be despite himself.

A new investigative report from Vanity Fair is latest bit of evidence. Tackling head-on the lesser, non-Mormon of the two elephants in any room Mitt Romney and campaign reporters happen to be in, Nicholas Shaxson’s piece attempts to flesh-out where, exactly, Romney keeps his money. With offshore accounts, blind trusts, and all manner of tax-dodging tricks and chicanery that I can’t even begin to fully comprehend, Shaxson finds Romney’s finances to be even more opaque than the Republican candidate’s public image.

Needless to say, Team Romney did not agree to cooperate with Vanity Fair on the piece.

It’s an unfortunate habit, the Romney campaign’s refusal to cooperate with a media they’ve long since determined to be implacably hostile. Putting aside whether the conclusion is correct — I don’t think it is; the media has its biases, but they’re not always easily placed on the left/right axis — Romney’s stonewalling of the media is rather self-defeating. Obviously, these stories are going to keep coming out. And as a recent dust-up with The Washington Post showed, ramping up damage control only after ignoring an unflattering report can ultimately compound the problem.

Above all else, if the Romney brain trust can’t introduce a new talking point to the candidate’s repertoire, maybe they’re best off “no comment”ing themselves all the way to November.

Prime example — how Romney’s handled criticisms of his off-shore financial holdings and the management of his personal finances more generally. The response from Boston has been clumsy, alternating between two not-especially-compelling messages. At first, criticizing Mitt Romney for his previous career (and its stupendous economic rewards) was tantamount to criticizing capitalism itself [1]. Next, the refrain was always a variation hereof: Mitt Romney has done nothing illegal [2].

In both cases, the attacks’ insidious subtext— that Mitt Romney is Other, his lifelong privilege and success having made him distant and removed — is not only unchallenged but reinforced.

Romney does himself no favors when he assumes the mantle of Capitalist in Chief. Not because Americans don’t like capitalists. They do. But they want their capitalists to be grateful and well-meaning. Ideally, fabulous wealth is earned through providing the world with a positive good: Facebook, the iPhone, alternative energy technologies, breakthrough medicines, etc. These are the products of entrepreneurship Americans prefer to focus on.

When Romney humblebrags about his great success as a private equity executive, the problem isn’t merely that the listener can’t help but reflect on how different her life experience is from Romney’s. She soon thinks, too, of how Romney made his millions. He did it through a very modern form of capitalism, through moving around money and placing bets. In its generalities, it’s a trade quite common among Romney’s fellow .01 percenters — but it’s not the kind of wealth-creation that makes Americans feel confident that the winners have won for everyone’s benefit.

Hiding behind the technical legality of Romney’s many offshore holdings and tax evasions (which according to Shaxson are not always clearly legal) is worse still. In this defense, the alien nature of Romney’s vast wealth is no longer implicit. By adopting the No Apology swagger to brush off whispers about dummy corporations and Swiss accounts, Boston unintentionally  reminds people not only of how different Romney is, but how people like Romney, in the words of Ben Walsh are “not just in another tax bracket… [they’re] playing a different game.”

The Obama campaign’s media outreach has shared the Vanity Fair article with an almost breathless joy. Coming on the heels of Washington Post scoop on Bain-run companies “pioneering” outsourcing, Vanity Fair has probably confirmed all of the Romney high command’s worst suspicions about the media. Eric Fehrnstorm, Romney’s consigliere and a former journalist, already derives much of his political self-defition from his hatred of the media-politico class. One would think Romney’snascent ties with rightwing media will now concretize and grow.

Nurturing a countervailing media environment, one more sympathetic to Republicans and orthodox conservatism, is a smart longterm investment. But restricting Romney’s appearances to platforms that at one time or another championed Andrew Breitbart will not help the candidate elude the President’s attacks. If the economy falls back into recession, this won’t make a difference. But if campaign fundamentals — GDP growth, consumer confidence, and no terrorist attacks — hold steady to Novemeber, 2012 will be the rare election in which tactics were decisive. Republicans don’t want voters thinking about the Cayman Islands when they’re standing in the voting booth.

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[1] ”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.”

[2] “I pay all the taxes I’m required to pay under the law, and by the way, not a dollar more.“

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