Just Like Me

Mitt Romney and Common Man Posturing In America

By Isabel Ponte

In the time it takes me to walk the length of campus, Mitt Romney makes $3468.99. In the time it takes to read my mail? $867.25. The time it takes to sit in seminar yields almost a full year’s worth of Kenyon tuition. This all from “romneymakes.com”, which breaks the candidate’s income down into an hourly wage and begs the question of proportionality: how difficult would a profession have to be for it to deservedly earn ten grand an hour?*

The ongoing battle over the release of the Governor’s tax returns and his infamous “47%” comments released last month underscore a public relations problem for Romney. They also show growing impatience with politicians who seem “out of touch,” and prompt a larger discussion about what being “in touch” really means.

The notion of political leader as common man is a tradition born with Caesar and resurrected in America—not during the constitutional convention, but in Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Jackson was an army man who fought in duels and said 99%-ish things like, “I have always been afraid of banks.” That he was a wealthy landowner by the time he was elected did not seem to undermine this image.

Since then, the importance of the common man angle has varied by election season. George W. Bush successfully ran on ignoring this same gap between appearance and reality. In a masterful performance, the wealthy son of an aristocratic family from the East Coast, and educated at Andover and Yale, managed to make his election to the White House seem like a triumph of the little guy. Bush escaped the old joke about his father by former governor Ann Richards of Texas: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth!” Partly by having grown up in Texas, George W. Bush was able to get away with being wealthy by having something else in him background to get him into the common man club.

Next to Bush, Romney looks amateurish and inaccessible. In the current presidential race, the discussion of his wealth has at times overshadowed the focus on his policies. This is probably an issue of bad performance combined with bad timing, as the recession has highlighted the contrast between Romney’s fortunes and those of averages Americans..

Gaffes aside, there’s evidence to suggest his income is a factor we should take seriously. According to George Washing University’s John Sides in a piece for The New York Times, social class affects how elected officials vote. In theory, the rich help the rich, the middle class help the middle class, and so on.

But no one will ever be able to represent every state, every religion, every ethnic and racial background. So in the context of a presidential, race the public tests candidates’ capacities for empathy; Romney’s perceived lack of empathy is a big part of what motivates the criticism of his wealth.

Striving for more diversity in government is a noble goal, but a discussion centered on Romney’s inability to pander doesn’t change anything. It seems we want our leaders to be both extraordinary and “just like us” at the same time.

This contradictory impulse gets us painful-to-watch political theater. Remember the embarrassing Joe the Plumber episode from 2008? Or Sarah Palin’s frantic posturing, made all the more awkward because it was half-real? Democrats are equally afflicted. Nancy Pelosi’s too-late attempt at Rick Rolling comes to mind. Though Obama mostly manages to avoid rich-guy, the obsession over beer-brewing in the White House comes across more as hipster affectation than believable blue-collar hobby.

It’s unlikely that any politician will be elected in the near future running on the platform, “I’m very wealthy and can’t quite understand your struggles firsthand, but I’ll educate myself and feel a sense of duty toward all American citizens.” The fact remains that “I am one of you” is just that much more powerful. We’re just as unlikely to see a real representation of the average in the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, the entire Supreme Court graduated from two law programs (Harvard and Yale), and millionaires make up two thirds of the senate according to a Politifact estimate. This doesn’t mean all those people grew up in a privileged sector of society, but at what point does a candidate’s upbringing start to take on less significance than his or her current circumstances?

These are difficult questions to address, and they require confrontation with some uncomfortable paradoxes in American political rhetoric and public life. It is much easier to fret over whether a single candidate is too rich to be president than it is to address increasing social stratification, or come to terms with the fact that the United States is not exempt from the presence of an entrenched ruling class. But the last two are probably more fruitful questions than looking up how much Romney makes while you microwave macaroni and cheese ($693.80).

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