WASHINGTON: When Mitt Romney was a young man, his father gave him direct advice: “He said never get involved in politics if you have to win election to pay a mortgage,” Romney often says. “Financial independence was key.”
The son followed this advice so successfully that he made a fortune, retired in 1999, turned to public service and has never taken a salary since.
But the wealth intended to liberate Romney the politician instead has ensnared him. He hoped it would free him; for many voters, it now seems to define him.
Democrats have relentlessly cast him as a corporate raider and out-of-touch plutocrat. And Romney, after more than a year running for president, has made one comment after another that inadvertently reinforces those characterisations.
“Why don’t you stick up for yourself?” a high-dollar donor asked Romney at the private fundraiser that was secretly recorded and leaked this month. “To me, you should be so proud of your wealth. That’s what we all aspire to be. . . . Why not stick up for yourself and say, ‘Why is it bad to be, to aspire to be wealthy and successful?’’
Romney paused and launched into a two-minute description of what he tries to get across on the stump, “the fact that people who dream and achieve enormous success do not make us poorer — they make us better off.” But he never answered the question.His oldest son, Tagg, offered one explanation for his father’s reticence in an interview Friday. “He was taught that when you do good things, you don’t brag about them.”
Three days before the first presidential debate, seen by some as Romney’s best or even last chance to sell himself, the persistent focus on his riches has taken a deep toll on his image, a battery of recent polls suggest.
By 2 to 1, registered voters in a late August Washington Post-ABC News poll said that Romney would do more to help the wealthy than the middle class. The numbers were flipped for President Barack Obama, with more than twice as many voters saying he would prioritise the middle class over the wealthy. In another measure of trust, registered voters in Ohio, Florida and Virginia gave Obama double-digit margins over Romney when asked which candidate understood the economic problems that Americans are facing, according to Post polls this month.
Americans have elected many rich elites as president, starting with George Washington. But Romney’s wealth, estimated to be between $190 million and $250 million, is inextricably bound up with two cultures that are mysterious and misunderstood by many people: high finance and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He also has a complicated relationship with his own money, which he has been unwilling or unable to explain to the public. One day he says he won’t apologise for his success; another day he jokes before a roomful of donors that he’s “poor as a church mouse.”
In one year, he and his wife, Ann, gave away far more money — $4.2 million — than most Americans will earn in a lifetime, according to the 2011 tax return he filed two weeks ago. But he has resisted calls to release more tax returns, citing a wish to keep his charitable contributions private as one reason. “It’s a very personal thing between ourselves and our commitment to our God and to our church,” he told Parade magazine.
Staggering success and fear of failure; pride and modesty; high-ticket purchases and penny-pinching make-dos; generosity and penury all exist side by side in the way Mitt Romney regards his own stockpile of money, say friends, family and business associates.
His admirers long ago gave up getting Romney to talk unapologetically about his success or even to explain to voters why he struggles to connect.
“I think he genuinely is a modest person. That explains some awkwardness or apparent unease in dealing with it,” said Mark DeMoss, a senior adviser and prominent evangelical leader within the GOP.
“It’s difficult for him to understand why people would think of him not understanding their daily travails because of his enormous wealth,” said Douglas Gross, who chaired Romney’s 2008 campaign in Iowa but is not involved with his campaign now. Romney perceives that he’s “lived his own life in a way that’s not extravagant, [and so] he doesn’t understand why people wouldn’t think he understands their pain.”
Gross recalls confronting Romney directly on this gulf in their first meeting. “I asked him, ‘You’re an incredibly successful guy and can you relate to average folks in the cafes of Iowa?’ and he found that question insulting and refused to answer it. To me, that’s the microcosm of the problem.”
At most rallies these days, Romney’s appearance is preceded by a biographical video that depicts him as warm, frugal and a bit silly. And, Tagg Romney said, the campaign plans to air ads soon in which other people talk about the Mitt Romney they know.It is not in his father’s temperament to “talk about how he cares about other people and cares for people,” Tagg Romney said.
“He’s not going to change.”
This week, Mitt Romney tried once again to relate. “My heart aches for the people I’ve seen,” he told people at a rally in Westerville, Ohio, on Wednesday.
Later that day, asked in an NBC interview how he can “better connect with Americans,” Romney offered an accomplishment, rather than a declaration of his feelings — the universal health-care law that he signed as governor of Massachusetts.
“One hundred per cent of the kids in our state had health insurance,” he said of the law that was the model for Obama’s Affordable Care Act — which Romney has vowed to repeal.
‘‘I don’t think there’s anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record.”
By arrangement with the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service