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Mitt Romney's Offer of Government of Billionaires, for Billionaires, by Billionaires
"Too much money" sounds like an oxymoron, especially when applied to American politics. But in the last week, Republicans are beginning to learn that lots of money can have its downside. Thursday's story that Romney may have actively directed Bain Capital three years longer than he claimed – a period in which Bain Capital-managed companies experienced bankruptcies and layoffs – caps what must be the worst weekly news cycle of any modern American presidential candidate. From images of corporate raiding, to luxury speedboats, to offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, to mega-mansions in the Hamptons, this week's stories suggest that the candidacy of Mitt Romney – poster-boy for the symbiotic relationship between big money and the modern Republican party – is in serious trouble.
Last weekend's photos of the Romney clan on a luxury speedboat cruising around a lake in New Hampshire, where their multimillion-dollar compound sits, were startling in their tone-deafness. And just to make sure the sentiment wasn't lost on anyone, at a campaign event the same week, Obama recounted childhood memories of touring the US with his grandmother by Greyhound bus, even the thrill of staying at a Howard Johnson motel. In a smart political calculation, the Obamas chose to forgo their annual summer vacation in Cape Cod (a nice upper-middle class vacation spot, mind you, but nowhere near the same league as the Romney estate). Instead, Obama was photographed visiting a senior citizens' home in the battleground state of Ohio.
And the hits kept coming. Next, Vanity Fair published an article listing the Romneys' various offshore investment accounts worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in the secretive tax havens of Cayman Islands and Bermuda, as well as a since-closed Swiss bank account. Democrats stoked the predictable outrage from the revelations. On the Sunday ABC news program "This Week", Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley thundered:
"Mitt Romney bets against America. He bet against America when he put his money in Swiss bank accounts and tax havens and shelters."
On the same program, Bobbie Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana, could only lamely respond:
"In terms of Governor Romney's financial success, I'm happy that he's a successful businessman."
While there is no evidence that the Romneys illegally evaded taxes through their various offshore accounts (their secretiveness making it impossible to tell), the reek of entitlement became overwhelming when it was revealed that the Romneys had accumulated somewhere between $20m and $101m in an "IRA", a tax-advantaged retirement account designed for middle-class savers, limited to a few thousand dollars a year contribution. As one commenter parried, "I may be stupid, but I ain't no fool." In other words, we might be too stupid to understand how Romney was able to obtain all these tax breaks legally, but we aren't fooled about unfairness of it all.
Well, at this point, you might of think that the next sighting of Romney would be of him clothed in ash-cloth ladling out soup at an inner-city soup kitchen. But no. Next, we were regaled with the New York Times story of a lavish fundraiser in the Hamptons hosted by the infamous David Koch, the billionaire benefactor of conservative causes. The optics were worse than bad, as the the Times recounted how one woman in a Range Rover, idling in a 30-deep line of cars waiting for entry, yelled to a Romney aide, "Is there a VIP entrance? We are VIP."
Romney was expected to haul in several million dollars from his trip to wine and dine with the billionaires of the Hamptons. But why risk confirming the very message that Democrats have been hammering upon: that Romney is a super-wealthy elitist whose objective is to further the interests of the 0.01%?
Certainly, billionaires for Romney would have given him those millions without the face-time and the photo-ops, the chance to dress up and be seen. And to be heckled by Occupy Wall Street protesters and parodied by reporters. What is so very puzzling about the whole episode is the sheer in-your-face-ness of it.
Yet, perhaps that is the point. As a very perceptive article in the New York Magazine, Lisa Miller describes how new psychological research indicates that wealth erodes empathy with others. In the "Money-Empathy Gap", Miller cites one researcher who says that:
"The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes the more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."
Researchers found a consistent correlation between higher income, management responsibility and disagreeableness. One researcher interpreted her findings to imply that money makes people disinterested in the welfare of others. "It's not a bad analogy to think of them as a little autistic" says Kathleen Vos, a professor at the University of Minnesota.
If this research is accurate (as it seems to be, replicated in various ways by several researches), the synergies between it, the increasing concentration of wealth and the Citizens United ruling, have striking implications for the future of the Republican party. As Newt Gingrich, the uber-southern politician, plaintively explained how he lost the Republican primary: "Romney had 16 billionaires. I had only one." The domination by the super-wealthy means that Republicans not only have no interest in the welfare of the rest of the 99.9%, they have no understanding of why this is a problem. The noblesse oblige days of the old money, such as the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts are long gone, replaced by the new mega-money of hedge funds, corporate raiders and global industrialists.
How else can one explain the allegiance of the Republican party to the profoundly unpopular Ryan tax plan, which would eviscerate Medicare and Medicaid while delivering more tax cuts to the rich? What is the future of a party in a democracy when the powers-that-be can no longer even understand, much less address, the welfare of the vast majority of its citizens?
Taking the hint, the Obama administration is finally positioning itself on the firmly on the side of progressives, attacking income inequality and holding Republicans accountable for their assaults on the middle and working classes. How ironic it would be if, after all, the other side's big money is the answer to the Democrats' prayers.