Mitt’s 1 percent moments

Cataloging his remarkable knack for sounding exactly like the out-of-touch rich guy Democrats want to paint him as

Published March 29, 2012 11:44AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop at an American Legion post in Arbutus, Md., Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)      (AP)
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop at an American Legion post in Arbutus, Md., Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) (AP)

Mitt Romney did it again on Wednesday, clumsily drawing attention to his privileged status in life in a way that reinforces negative perceptions of him.

The occasion was a telephone town hall with Republican voters in Wisconsin, which holds its primary next Tuesday. Romney relayed to listeners what he called a “humorous” anecdote about his father’s decision as the president of American Motors to close a plant in Michigan and shift production to two factories in Wisconsin. The punch line involved George Romney running for governor of Michigan a few years later and marching in a parade with a band that struck up “On Wisconsin” – causing the candidate's aides to panic “because they didn’t want people in Michigan to be reminded that my dad had moved production to Wisconsin.”

Needless to say, Democrats are now pointing to this as further evidence that Romney is an oblivious, out-of-touch plutocrat. Making this image stick is central to their general election strategy, since it could drive a wedge between Romney and a crucial swing constituency – working-class white voters, whose mass defection to the GOP in the 2010 midterms was a major reason for that fall’s Republican landslide.

Exit polls from the GOP primary race, which have consistently shown Romney faring worse with blue-collar and middle-income voters than with those making over $100,000, have buoyed Democratic hopes that Romney’s top 1 percent-ness will be a general election liability for him. The idea isn’t that Romney will pay a price just because he’s rich. It’s that voters will conclude that his elite background and lifestyle have kept him from understanding and empathizing with their everyday concerns.

To be fair, the extent of Romney’s wealth-related image problem – and whether he even has one – is a matter of some dispute. It’s not clear if the income gap that has defined the GOP race will spill over to the fall, or if it’s a reflection of something else. And his supporters would probably argue that Romney’s “wealth gaffes” are getting attention now because of wishful Democratic thinking and media hype, and that they’ll be long forgotten by voters this fall, especially if Romney stages a successful campaign relaunch at the GOP convention this summer.

Still, Wednesday was a reminder of Romney’s uncanny knack for carrying himself in a way that meshes perfectly with the caricature Democrats want to run against. Here’s a review of some of his previous top 1 percent moments:

  • The mansion: Around the time Romney formally launched his campaign last summer, Romney sought a permit for a $12 million expansion of his 3,099-square-foot home on La Jolla, Calif., into an 11,062-square-foot mansion. The Romney campaign explained that the extra space would accommodate the growing number of grandchildren in the family. The La Jolla property, one of several homes that Romney owns, returned to the news this week when it was reported that one of the features of the expanded house would be a garage with a car elevator.
  • “A couple of Cadillacs”: Campaigning in Michigan before that state’s Feb. 28 primary, Romney tried to win over his audience by expressing his fondness for American automobiles: “I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck. So I used to have all three covered.”
  • High-stakes gambling: When Rick Perry (remember him?) got under his skin in a Dec. 10 Iowa debate by insisting that he’d argued for an individual health insurance mandate at the national level, an irritated Romney sought to quiet him with a wager. “Rick, I’ll tell you what: 10,000 bucks?” Romney offered. "I'm not in the betting business,” Perry replied, “but I'll show you the book."
  • $374,000 is “not very much” money: Before he was shamed into releasing his tax returns in late January (which showed that he paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent on more than $21 million in income in 2010), Romney admitted to reporters that most of his income came from investments, meaning that it was subject to a significantly lower tax rate. But, he added, “I got a little bit of income from my book, but I gave that all away. Then, I get speakers fees from time to time, but not very much." Based on his financial disclosure reports, though, “not very much” to Romney actually means $374,327.62 – the amount he took in from speaking engagements from February 2010 to February 2011.
  • The Swiss bank account: … and the accounts in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, which were revealed when Romney finally released his tax returns.
  • Some of my best friends are pro sports owners: Romney showed up at the Daytona 500 in late February and was asked if he follows NASCAR racing. “Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans,” he replied, “but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners.” The remark drew wide ridicule, but evidently Romney didn’t learn his lesson; appearing on an Alabama sports radio show days later, he volunteered that “I’ve got a lot of good friends -- the owner of the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets -- both owners are friends of mine.”
  • Firing people: OK, this one isn’t exactly fair. Talking about the value of being able to shop around for insurance providers, Romney told an audience in New Hampshire this January that “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” The line was immediately shortened by his opponents to “I like being able to fire people” and used to push the image of him as a heartless business titan. Of course, Romney’s campaign had weeks earlier done the same thing, stripping a Barack Obama quote of its context and turning it into an attack ad. That’s how politics works these days, so “I enjoy being able to fire people” has the same potential as these other episodes to advance the Democratic caricature of Romney.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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