"My question is, why don't you stick up for yourself?" a man who had paid fifty thousand dollars to attend a dinner with Mitt Romney asked. "To me, you should be so proud that you're wealthy." That remark was recorded in a video of the dinner, at a hedge-fund manager's home in Boca Raton, which was released by Mother Jones. In it, Romney complains that just under half of all Americans had come to see themselves as "victims," when they were actually, as he sees it, entitled and demanding dependents. But there is a character who he and everyone else in the room seem to agree most certainly is a true victim: Mitt Romney himself, martyr to the envy of the masses.
Romney has been running a campaign centered on resentment, in many forms: the resentment directed at the "successful" that he imagines is driving his critics; the resentment he is trying to fan in his base voters; and, increasingly and most strangely, his own. Romney's resentment has become a matter of temperament, of policy, and of politics. He and his wife, Ann, have made it clear that they take offense when his good will is questioned. Fixated on what he sees as the jealous motives of his critics, he misses the important truths about our economy and the reality of people's lives that might have informed his agenda. He also reveals a great deal about himself.
This is not a new theme for Romney. In January, after winning the New Hampshire primary, he spoke in his victory speech about "the bitter politics of envy.... 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." The next morning, he spoke to Matt Lauer:
Lauer: I'm curious about the word 'envy.' 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: You know, I think it's about envy. I think it's about class warfare.
Somehow, asking whether our economy might ever have victims is itself an act of victimizing Mitt. Resentment based in a sense of under-appreciation can be unattractive. (That is why the "we built it" theme at the Republican convention felt more sour than rightfully prideful.) At the fundraiser, after one woman said that she was concerned Americans didn't know Romney, another called out, "You're known as a rich boy! They say he's a rich boy." (In fairness, they do.) When Romney told the donors, absurdly, "I have inherited nothing," they applauded, rather than laughed. Speaking of Obama, he said, "What he's going to do by the way is try to vilify me as someone who's been successful. Or who's, you know, closed businesses or laid people off and isn't he an evil bad guy." And: "the thing which I find most disappointing about this President: his attack on one American against another American--his division of America based on going after those who have been successful."
As has been noted often since the video became public, these words seem particularly unaware given that Romney himself seems to have divided Americans, and dismissed about half as hopeless ingrates. In talking about his chances, Romney confusedly said that forty-seven per cent of Americans didn't pay income taxes (although, as he did not mention, most pay payroll or other taxes, and many others are retirees), and that these same Americans would never vote for him because they wanted, above all, to remain dependent. Conservatives like David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, and Bill Kristol have recognized how small Romney made their party look, but Romney did not. Instead of backing down, he has simply tried to invite others to share in his resentment. Tuesday afternoon, speaking to Neil Cavuto on Fox News:
I'm talking about a perspective of individuals who I'm not likely to get to support me. I recognize that those people who are not paying income tax are, are going to say, Gosh, this provision that Mitt keeps talking about, lowering income taxes, that's not going to be real attractive to them. And those that are dependent on government and those that think government's job is to redistribute, I'm not going to get them.
Was Romney abandoning the idea that his tax policies might help the economy generally, rather than just the tax filer, or does he simply think that "those people" are incapable of understanding any picture bigger than the mailbox in which they're looking for their checks? Speaking to Cavuto, he said that the idea that "government should take from some to give to others" was an "entirely foreign concept," but at the same time, and without any recognition that he's creating a mathematical problem, that "government steps in to help people in need--we're a compassionate people." Social programs are acts of pity, in this view, rather than investments in our futures and our communities. Perhaps this is why we are meant to be so grateful to high earners, and why Romney is affronted enough to decide that those who question the rich are beyond the reach of rationality. (It may also explain why Ann Romney thinks she can answer questions about the family's unseen tax returns by talking about their gifts to charity.)
And yet how many people paying a good deal in taxes have a Pell grant in their past? (I know that I do.) How many were able to focus in school because they weren't hungry, or keep moving forward without being bankrupted by a death or the medical needs of an elderly relative? Romney doesn't seem to recognize that people may like certain programs because of where they have brought them, and are allowing them and their children to go--not where they have kept them.
This is the corollary to the worry in conservative circles that, as John Cassidy noted, a growth in government will make people like government--that they will get hooked on a dependency drug. But appreciating the chances these programs afford, and liking what many of them can do for one's community, is not the same thing as being grasping and greedy.
Any gratitude toward the country we've all built, Romney seems to be saying, is misplaced. Instead, the feelings Romney regards as proper ones for the rest of us to assume are a cheerful appreciation of the wealthy and an eager resolve to be just like Mitt--and also a little nicer to him. Romney has reduced the great issues of fairness and a just society to the rather boring question of whether people are being fair to him and his friends, and whether they admire his fine qualities. Among other things, this cannot help him electorally: What is less attractive than a manifestly lucky man sulking about how everyone is jealous of him?