To hear Mitt Romney tell it, he’s a successful investor with the business know-how to get the economy back on track. To hear Democratic groups tell it, he’s a second-generation plutocrat worth upwards of $250 million who is utterly disconnected from the average American’s daily life. And despite his best efforts, Romney is giving his opponents an endless array of material to build their narrative.
On Wednesday, Democrats pounced on comments from Romney in which he said his tax plan would benefit the middle class, a group that, apparently, included himself. “It’s not those in the low end; it’s certainly not those in the very high end. It’s for the great middle class - the 80 to 90 percent of us in this country,” Romney said.
Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the DNC, could barely contain his glee, blasting out an email with Romney’s comments with the subject “Us???? Really?”
On the same day, American Bridge, a Democratic Super PAC that tracks GOP candidates, posted video of Romney’s wife, Ann, telling New Hampshire voters about how the family owns “a little place in Wolfeboro.” The group sent the quote out along with multiple articles on the 5,400 square foot, six bedroom manse with a 2,700 square foot boathouse and 2,600 square foot guest house.
Observers have long identified Romney’s blue blooded background as one of his most obvious vulnerabilities: as Matt Lewis of The Daily Caller memorably put it, he “looks like the guy who pink-slipped your father.” Democrats have been waging a concentrated campaign to define him as such very early in the races, highlighting any quote, phrase, fact, or news story that plays up Romney’s wealth.
“Romney’s strategy to be ‘one of us’ rings so much more hollow than the rest of his phoniness because it gets at his biggest weakness — that he has spent much of his life advancing policies that help himself and his wealthy friends at the expense of the middle class that he claims to be in,” Bill Burton, a former Obama aide and co-founder of Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA, told TPM. “It would be funny if it weren’t so offensive.”
Sometimes he makes it too easy for them, like when news broke that he was tearing down a $12 million mansion in La Jolla in order to build a new compound four times its size. Romney held his tongue at first, but eventually complained to a New Hampshire newspaper publisher that he was only doubling its square footage if you don’t count the basement and garage. Given that John McCain took endless grief for his failure to remember how many houses he owned (it was five), it shouldn’t have been hard to predict that the California home might be a problem.
In June, Romney joked with a group of unemployed workers that “I’m also unemployed,” undercutting an elaborate campaign he had launched just that month to highlight the personal toll joblessness took on struggling Americans.
Then there are smaller campaign moments, like the time he had to dig deep in his wallet to find a non-$100 bill to give to a child in exchange for an origami dollar. Last week at a car dealership he talked up how he owns two Cadillacs at two houses then, realizing they sold Fords, added that he also owns a Mustang.
Romney may slip up sometimes, but his campaign has also gone out of its way to tackle this problem early. He’s hit up plenty of small town events in flannel and denim and rarely sports a tie, a style choice that has not gone unnoticed. His campaign videos on joblessness and press appearances at businesses that have fallen on hard times help shift the focus away from his personal resume and squarely on average Americans (even if it leads to a somewhat depressing campaign).
In one notable instance, he also decided to claim a potential gaffe as a highlight rather than awkwardly pushing back. After he told a voter in Iowa that “corporations are people,” a phrase Democrats highlighted in multiple web videos and even a t-shirt, he doubled down on the quote and included it in his recent economic plan.
But it’s not just the occasional accidental reminders of Romney’s income bracket that Democrats are looking to play up. They’re working just as hard at targeting what they claim are his deliberate attempts to neutralize the issue as well. This is a major subtext to the reported scheme to label Romney “weird”: the idea that, no matter how much he tries, Romney still is an alien from Planet Money.
Burton, for example, issued a memo earlier this month on Romney’s habit of tweeting about fast food and budget airline flights. Previously, the DNC passed around a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post on Romney’s “awkwardness” on the campaign trail, which including anecdotes about the candidate abruptly pressing voters for information on their personal finances.
While Rick Perry’s hardscrabble upbringing could make Romney’s wealth an issue in the primaries, it will only become bigger in the general election should he win the nomination. Obama’s increasingly populist tone and plan for a new tax on the ultra-rich is almost perfectly calibrated for a Romney fight.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.