Saturday, January 28, 2012


I hope you all have been watching the Republican debates. Lord knows I have. I’ve watched them week after week, month after month, despite the incredible redundancy, for the same reason I’ve watched the Godfather movies and various Kubrick movies a zillion times. It’s called developing a taste for twisted humor. There’s no other way to explain how I can spend so much time watching Mitt Romney strut his stuff like the proudest of peacocks without losing my lunch.

In South Carolina, Mitt lost his way because he was afraid – the prospect of releasing his tax returns chilled him to the bone. It was as if he knew he had something to hide. But why? When his returns were released this past Tuesday, it became clear that Mitt was doing everything the system asked of him. And sure enough, his Republican rivals have been rather muted in criticizing Mitt’s tax returns. For a Republican, those returns are practically holy objects. They are the fruits of living the American dream.

Sure, Mitt paid only a 14% tax rate, or well under that paid by workers who make as much in a year as Mitt makes in a one-hour speech. So what? He paid what is required of him under our system, which taxes those who make big bucks through financial speculation at a much lower rate than it taxes the middle class. According to the Republican talking points, there is nothing inappropriate about taking advantage of a low capital gains rate, and every reason to lower that rate so as to encourage investing. They would add that a low capital gains rate is only fair, because the money that is being invested has already been taxed once. How can we justify taxing it twice – especially when this would lower our national investment rate? In the long run, is that really going to help the middle class or the poor?

Or so goes the Republican argument. By the time Barack Obama gets through with him, Mitt Romney will have given that argument a face. And the more that I think about it, his is just the perfect face for the job.

In a twisted sort of way, Mitt is a moral exemplar. His is the classic American success story. Here we have a wonderful family man, deeply committed to his faith, hugely successful in one business venture after another, and highly productive as the Governor of a populous state. Mitt exudes, if not an aura of comfort around other people, at least a high degree of self-adulation. And what’s not to adulate? Mitt is a winner. He knows it, you know it, and if you don’t like him or what he stands for, it must be because of your “envy.” Or so he says.

Deep down, I don’t really have anything against the guy. I remember knowing people like him when I went to Harvard Law School, one of Mitt’s own alma maters. I didn’t generally dislike them – not even the ones who were as aloof as Mitt. They were, after all, upstanding members of the community, people of their word, and altogether sane and rational. (I never had them pegged for being the type who would strap a dog to the roof of their car.) I knew back then that they’d end up making a large multiple of the income that I made when we got out of school, and I never begrudged them their choice of career any more than they’d begrudge me my GS 15. They were making their choice; I was making mine. Envy had nothing to do with the equation. We both could easily have taken the other path. It was totally a matter of choice.

Mitt must understand that liberals don’t support progressive tax policies based on envy but rather because they simply have a different ideology than he does. Not only was he schooled at Harvard – a bastion of progressivism – but he went on to govern the state of Massachusetts, or “Taxachusetts” as it is also known. You can accuse Mitt of many things, but being unfamiliar with progressives is not one of them.

So why, then, would Mitt shrug off his critics by accusing them of envy? Because it was his way of brushing off the discussion about taxes and economic equity. Until recently, he hasn’t been comfortable debating those issues at any length. Rather than engaging his opponents on such a third-rail topic, he wanted to win the nomination in what is known in sports as a “walk over.” Clearly, he was hoping that his superior endorsements and war chest would allow him to simply show up, smile awkwardly at the camera, boast about how damned moral and successful he has been from the minute he has taken his first step on this earth, and watch his opponents simply dry up as soon as their money did the same. Then came a feisty critter known, non-anthropomorphically, as “Newt.” And the next thing you know, Mitt was in a real fight.

Unfortunately, that fight seems poised to end soon. Like many bullies, Newt has a glass jaw. So once Mitt arose from his nightmare in South Carolina and started throwing haymakers to every part of Newt’s head and body, the former Speaker has been asking for a “truce,” rather than throwing anything back. What Newt and Mitt both understand, you see, is that this election will ultimately be about taxes and the Republican Party has no choice but to own our non-progressive system of taxation. And nobody owns it more smugly than Mitt Romney. So given that fact, the GOP might as well select Mitt to be the guy to trade blows with Barack about the roles and responsibilities of the wealthy. Next to such a poster child as Mitt, Newt is as poor and “unsuccessful” as the lowly government workers, whose pay Mitt has announced his desire to slash as soon as he is elected.

I don’t remember in my lifetime a candidate for President who better represented the modern plutocrat than Mitt Romney. He doesn’t exude even a shred of respect for the argument that rich people need to pay more in taxes not only because they are the ones who can best afford to pay, but also because they owe much of their wealth to the working-class or middle-class employees who form the backbone of most businesses. Those principles, for me, are a basic element of fairness. To the modern Republican, however, they are viewed instead as justifications for socialism. The Grand Old Party would give us Americans a choice: virtually unbridled capitalism with a non-progressive tax structure, or Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. In the Republican mind, there is no middle ground – no opportunity to combine private-sector competition with progressive taxation. Romney is holding himself out as the businessman whose noblesse oblige led him to politics but without stripping him of his devotion to Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He will be proud to show that Barack Obama is clueless about the value of the market and all too ready to place trillions of dollars in the uninspired hands of unelected bureaucrats. That’s the Republican game plan.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of psyched to see it all play out in the fall. It is high time we had a referendum on whether America should be an unabashed plutocracy. Barack Obama would like to turn this election into such a referendum. And Mitt just might be cocky enough to oblige him.

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