It's complicated: Romney struggles to talk wealth

January 20, 2012 - 1:45 PM
Republicans Debate

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participates in the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney is no natural when it comes to "common man" politics.

He bets a Republican rival $10,000 on an impulse. He dismisses $373,000 in speaking fees as "not very much." And he slow-walks the release of his income tax returns but then blurts out a key fact: He pays about 15 percent of his income in taxes because he lives mostly on investment income and not a paycheck.

Such commissions of candor suggest a presidential candidate who is far from an everyman — and who may have a tin ear for how he sounds to those who are. That could pose a special challenge to Romney in hard-hit Florida, and beyond. In a general election, Romney, who had a privileged upbringing and made millions as a venture capitalist, would be fighting for the votes of average Americans against a president whose mother at times drew food stamps and who worked his way through Harvard Law School to the pinnacle of power.

"When Barack Obama talks about paying off student loans and struggling, people believe him and it resonates," said Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Historically, "the common people have to believe that the president knows them and knows their situation and knows their lives."

Republicans hope that in 2012, American voters struggling to get jobs and pay bills are looking past the candidates' personal stories and to their proposals for stabilizing the economy and cutting the nation's staggering debt.

"Barack Obama had an incredible emotional connection with the American people in 2008," said South Carolina Republican consultant Jim Dyke. In the worst economy since the Great Depression, "that connection has dissipated," he added. "The American people may be more interested in a credible plan to address our problems."

The ranks of presidential candidates, and presidents, throughout history are full of American aristocrats, from George Washington to the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys and Bushes. Some won by using policy and rhetoric to win support from lower-income voters, a practice that became known as the politics of the common man after Andrew Jackson's 1828 campaign. He won in part by portraying the nation's central bank as an institution that mostly made rich people richer.

So it's possible to run for president, and even win, while wealthy. Indeed, polls suggest that Americans don't begrudge Romney's family fortune or his own success in the private sector. In an AP-GfK survey last month, for example, about half of the respondents said Romney "understands the problems of ordinary Americans." Roughly the same percentage felt that way about Obama.

And efforts to portray Romney as a "vulture capitalist" fat cat at Bain Capital may have backfired against Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, the Republican rivals who launched them. Perry dropped out of the contest on Thursday.

There's evidence that Romney himself is learning to edit out offhand remarks that may be genuine yet jarring to average voters. In a debate Thursday night, Romney referred to having his tax returns "carefully managed," but mostly stayed clear of lifestyle details.

Instead, he equated his wealth with all-American achievement and upward mobility — the opposite of coasting on his father's success as head of American Motor Corp., Michigan governor and federal housing secretary.

"What I have, I earned. I worked hard, the American way," Romney said to cheers and applause. "I'm not going to apologize for being successful."

It was a refinement of the way Romney has handled the central challenge of his campaign: winning over people struggling to keep their houses and find work when his own background is so far removed. Making it tougher is that the 2012 contest is happening against a backdrop of anger over income disparity, with "99 percenters" protesting policies that help the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans — including Romney.

And where the Roosevelts and Kennedys won over ordinary people with social policies like the New Deal, Romney is campaigning on a plan to stabilize the economy through investments and tax breaks for "job creators," including the wealthiest individuals.

"Wealthy Democrats can get away with being wealthy so long as they espouse policies favorable to ordinary folks. Wealthy Republicans, by contrast, take a hit when their policies seem to favor the wealthy," said presidential historian H.W. Brands of the University of Texas. "It's the policies that really matter. The personal history is fluff."

Still, Romney has struggled to strike the right note with the masses.

In New Hampshire last month, he suggested that he's feared job setbacks at various points in his career.

"I know what it's like to worry about whether you're going to get fired. A couple of times I wondered if I was going to get a pink slip," Romney said during a campaign stop in Rochester, NH.

But it's highly unlikely he's ever felt the fear of being let go, or of being unable to find work, without a family fortune to fall back on.

Romney's refusal to release his tax forms put a fine point on the issue.

He grudgingly acknowledged that he might, for the first time, release them. But only one year's worth, and not until April, if he is the GOP's presidential nominee. He did reveal that he pays an effective tax rate of 15 percent, lower than what he would pay if he earned a regular pay check. He then disclosed that he earned speaking fees, "but not very much." The amount turned out to be $373,327.62 from 2010-2011.

In New Hampshire, a day after the pink slip remark, he spoke of the importance of having a choice of health insurance companies and declared, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."

And in a heated debate last month, Romney bet Perry "10,000 bucks," apparently on impulse, when he could have wagered a symbolic dollar, or a beer.

Romney will soon get some practice honing his personal story in a state where he would need to be a master of it in the general election. After the South Carolina primary on Saturday, Romney and the GOP field move to Florida, a massive swing state familiar with the toxic cycle of high unemployment, unpaid bills, home foreclosures and despair.

It's no coincidence that Obama announced a new economic initiative there Thursday. The state suffers from 10 percent unemployment, and more than half of its homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth.

In Florida and beyond, Romney may find that sometimes it's best to keep his thoughts to himself.

"Don't try to stop the foreclosure process," he told the Las Vegas Review Journal in October, describing ways to improve the housing market. "Let it run its course and hit the bottom."