Carlson: Mitt Romney's wealth problem
Having money, on balance, is a net positive in life, but studies of happiness caution that great wealth doesn't necessarily improve well-being.
For Mitt Romney, it may actually be an impediment. In his campaign for president, Romney's personal fortune has proved to be a tender subject as well as the source material for many of his worst gaffes. If only his wealth could rest demurely in the Cayman Islands. Instead, it rears up at politically inopportune moments, prompting Romney to offer Texas Gov. Rick Perry a $10,000 bet at a debate; to announce his affinity for "Nascar owners" and his disdain for fans dressed in plastic ponchos; to declare his enjoyment of firing people and to make a joke about being unemployed himself.
His wife, Ann, he told us, has two Cadillacs, which helps to explain both the need for a car lift at the couple's oceanfront house and the conclusion, reached by 89 percent of respondents in a YouGov poll, that Romney "cares about the wealthy." Columnist Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that sympathetically chronicles the abuses heaped on the upper class by an ungrateful hoi polloi, warned that photos of the Romneys vacationing on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee (with yet another mansion in the background) was a jet ski too far. In a nation where median family income has been losing ground for more than a decade, is it too much to ask Romney at least to pretend that he understands the ways of commoners? Apparently it is. Members of the Republican establishment, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former party Chairman Haley Barbour and talking heads of the class Bill Kristol and George Will, have urged Romney to fork over multiple years of tax returns, as countless candidates, including Romney's own father, have done before him.
After months of dithering accompanied by vague claims that tax data would be forthcoming, the candidate opted for secrecy, deciding that the political hit from not disclosing his taxes is preferable to showing voters whatever lurks inside.
Even discussing his wealth musses Romney's chairman-of-the- board demeanor. Such conversation, he told the NBC "Today" show's Matt Lauer, should be reserved for "quiet rooms." Trouble is, being a presidential candidate means dispensing with privacy, including revealing how much money you have, where it came from and whether, in the sort of hypothetical that seemed inconceivable until the 2012 campaign, it is residing not in a cookie jar but in the quiet rooms of Switzerland and Bermuda.
What does it say about Romney's rigid embrace of his fortune that he won't move his money from nations synonymous with dodgy tax manipulation into a U.S. account? Not even to be president? How much does he want the job? Romney at least has acquired a bit of horse sense, distancing himself from Rafalca, Ann Romney's mare that will be dancing for gold at the Olympics in an obscure sport called dressage. Romney now says he won't be paying attention to the competition, which Romney supporter Charles Krauthammer called "the most upper-class hoity-toity Olympic event ever invented." Talking to NBC's Brian Williams, Romney would only cop to knowing that other "people that are associated with this are looking forward to it." Far from being an innocent bystander, dressage-wise, Romney has previously swooned over Austrian Warmbloods in an off-air exchange with Fox News host Sean Hannity. He has attended many competitions and in April helped choose the music for Rafalca's high-stepping performance at the Dressage World Cup.
It may be too late to put the horse back in the barn, but Romney might at least want to revisit the $77,000 business loss he took for Rafalca's care and feeding, which is sort of like the tax deduction families get for each child, only much, much better.
A presidential candidate who takes a huge tax deduction for such an elitist sport exhibits a cluelessness bordering on contempt. Romney has argued that dressage helps his wife's multiple sclerosis. That's all to the good, but dressage is to therapeutic horseback riding as caviar is to Spam.
Romney supporters know to dismiss as envious anyone who highlights the peculiarities of the candidate's wealth. Most of them undoubtedly understand that his success is not the issue. The source of resentment is that Romney plays by different rules.
He says he pays the taxes he legally owes and "not a penny more." That's probably true. The investor class has shoehorned complicated loopholes into the tax code, keeping a flotilla of accountants busy sheltering their wealth from the U.S. Treasury. (Ordinary taxpayers, alas, cannot play along at home.) In a rare interview this week with ABC News, Romney said he would be "happy to go back and look" to see if he ever had paid taxes at a rate lower than 13.9 percent, which he paid on $21.7 million in income in 2010, the one year of tax returns he has released. That's "happy" as in "happy to have root canal." We're still waiting for Romney's response, let alone his returns. Let's find a quiet room to talk about it.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.