It's All Politics
Romney's Wealth 'Gaffes' Seem Less About Money, More About Him
Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 3:34 pm
By this point, as virtually everyone knows, Mitt Romney has fed a stereotype of himself as an out-of-touch plutocrat through a series of comments the news media have labeled "gaffes."
The word gaffe, of course, as Michael Kinsley once observed, has at least two meanings: the generally used one of something that's a social faux pas, and the Washington one, which the journalist said was "someone telling the truth by accident."
Romney's gaffes thus have fallen in the second category. He has inadvertently reminded voters that he's a very wealthy man even as his campaign has tried to give him the common touch.
There are the jeans and open-collared shirts and the photo a Romney son tweeted not so long ago of Romney making a repair on the campaign bus with duct tape, for instance.
Whether it was his unfortunately phrased comment a few weeks ago that started with his saying he wasn't concerned about very poor people, or his statement during his visit to Daytona, Fla., over the weekend that he's no fan of NASCAR but knows some of the wealthy owners of racing teams, Romney continues to add to his gaffe supply.
What's interesting about the Romney situation is that a presidential candidate's revelations of his wealth haven't always been seen as a gaffe. Anything but.
In fact, Americans generally haven't shown an antipathy to wealthy politicians running for president or even rich presidents.
Indeed, many presidents have been superwealthy, a point made by the 24/7 Wall Street site, which examined the net worth of the nation's 44 presidents. George Washington, for instance, had an estimated worth of more than $500 million in current dollars, which would make him the wealthiest president.
In the last century the Roosevelts and the Kennedys were men of great wealth, too, which did little to hurt their popularity.
That probably was in part because it was easier for a trustbusting progressive Republican and for Democrats to demonstrate that they were for the common man owing to their more populist party platforms. As a 21st century Republican who wants to be the standard-bearer for his party, Romney offers a prescription for helping average Americans that leans more toward the free market than toward government action.
In part, maybe it was also because those past presidents carried their wealth fairly lightly. John F. Kennedy even joked about his family's wealth and his father's political uses of it by telling voters of a telegram the family patriarch sent him that supposedly said, "Dear Jack: Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll help you win this election, but I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide!"
If Kennedy had said in Detroit during the 1960 campaign that Jackie Kennedy owned two Cadillacs, it's hard to imagine it would've had the negative fallout of Romney's comment.
In certain ways, however, Romney may be a target because he has seemed uneasy about his wealth. The whole back-and-forth over his tax returns, for instance, helped further that sense.
And then there is Romney's at-times awkward campaign moments. His comment about wife Anne's two Cadillacs came during a passage in his speech when he repeated his trope about the trees in Michigan being the "right height," which almost made it look as though he was caricaturing his own alleged hypertendency to pander.
For a candidate already facing the authenticity question, that has probably fed into his problems. That, along with the fact that his "likability" factor has fallen the more voters have gotten to know him, probably make it easier for the news media and his opponents to seize on these gaffes.
Brad Phillips, a former broadcast journalist who now runs a media training firm, thinks the answer for the former Massachusetts governor is to unleash his inner multimillionaire. That would allow him to finally relax and could help boost his genuineness quotient. An excerpt from Phillips' Mr.MediaTraining blog post:
"I understand why Mr. Romney's advisers didn't want him to run as a 'rich guy' candidate. With income inequality at record-high levels and Romney's image as a corporate raider, his wealth could easily be viewed as a campaign-killing liability. But Mr. Romney's chronic gaffes have rendered that strategy impossible. It's time for Romney to start running as the person he really is: a rich guy.
" 'Rich guy' candidates often win. Jon Corzine served as both Senator and Governor from New Jersey, and Michael Bloomberg is serving his third term as New York City mayor. And although he didn't win, billionaire Ross Perot led the polls during his 1992 presidential run. But all three candidates used their wealth as a positive talking point, convincing voters that their wealth allowed them to serve without being compromised. Mr. Romney hasn't sold himself on a similar promise."