Although Mitt Romney has yet to win a majority in a Republican primary, he won big in Florida. After he and the pro-Romney super PACs flooded the airwaves with millions of dollars’ worth of ads in a state where nearly half the homeowners are underwater, he talked about whom he wants to represent. “We will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor, and there’s no question, it’s not good being poor,” he told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien. “You could choose where to focus, you could focus on the rich, that’s not my focus. You could focus on the very poor, that’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.” Of the very rich, Romney assures us, “They’re doing just fine.” With an estimated personal wealth of $250 million, Romney should know.
Romney’s campaign itself is well-financed, but his success to date, especially against his current main rival, Newt Gingrich, is driven by massive cash infusions to a so-called super PAC, the new breed of political action committee that can take unlimited funds from individuals and corporations. Super PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating their activities with a candidate’s campaign. Federal Election Commission filings made public Jan. 31 reveal that the principal super PAC supporting Romney, Restore Our Future, raised close to $18 million in the second half of 2011, from just 199 donors. Among his supporters are Alice Walton, who, although listed in the report as a “rancher,” is better known as an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, and the famously caustic venture capitalist and billionaire Samuel Zell, the man credited with driving the Tribune media company into bankruptcy. William Koch, the third of the famous Koch brothers, also gave.
Juxtapose those 199 with the number of people living in poverty in the United States. According to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million people lived in poverty in 2010, 15.1 percent of the population, the largest number in the 52 years the poverty estimates have been published. 2010 marked the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.
Romney, in his victory speech in New Hampshire, said: “This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success. ... We are one nation under God.”
The next morning, NBC’s Matt Lauer challenged him, asking: “Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or fairness?” Romney doubled down, claiming: “I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus 1 percent—and those people who have been most successful will be in the 1 percent ... [it’s] entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”
And not caring for the poor is consistent? Romney presents a confusing critique of President Barack Obama and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Put aside for the moment that Occupy Wall Street is generally very critical of President Obama, and especially of his appointees like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (who switched from Republican to independent in order to serve under Obama, but did not switch his politics) and former economic adviser Larry Summers. Romney clearly has no idea what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about if he thinks that the tens of thousands protesting, often facing police violence and risking arrest, are there because of envy. It is, as Lauer put it in his question, about fairness.
In the same New Hampshire speech, Romney said President Obama “wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society.” Curious words from a man who salted $3 million into a Swiss bank account. His hastily closed UBS bank account stands out as its own form of European entitlement. Coupled with investments in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, Romney’s effective tax rate was 13.9 percent in 2010, a fraction of the 35 percent paid by average middle-class families that he claims to care so much about.
As Romney campaigns across his 1 percent nation under God, he moves from Florida, the state with the highest foreclosure rate, to Nevada, the state with the highest unemployment rate. Expect him to increasingly care, if not for the very poor, then for the votes they will likely cast against him.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.