This time "class warfare' cry is finally true

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign event at Horizontal Wireline Services on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 in Irwin, Pa.

Republicans have been waging class warfare for years -- and winning without working up a sweat. For proof, just take a look at the welfare program for the wealthy that is the US tax code.

Such victories aside, Republicans have always claimed that it's Democrats who play the class card. Whisper that the top 1 percent pay the lowest tax rate in 80 years and you're trafficking in class resentment. Help the working and middle classes get health care and you're a socialist.

Last week, Mitt Romney called the social safety net "free stuff." In other words, if the unemployed get insurance or the poor receive food stamps, it's a giveaway. If a private equity manager pays 14 percent tax on his millions while a firefighter pays 28 percent on his thousands, that's rewarding risk takers.

This summer, though, Republicans finally have a point. Democrats really are playing class warfare. They haven't won yet, but with Romney as the Republican standard bearer, they just might.

President Barack Obama's campaign met with resistance when it first attacked Romney as an out-of-touch businessman whose experience at Bain Capital LLC, rather than qualify him for the presidency, disqualifies him. A few Democrats, dependent for campaign cash on life's big winners, complained that Obama was attacking free enterprise. Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker called the attacks "nauseating," echoing the complaints of Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, who had jumped on Romney's primary rivals when they characterized his business tactics as "vulture capitalism."

Exploiter class

Democrats have stopped complaining. In the best political ad in years, Obama's campaign features Romney singing an off-key "America the Beautiful" with lines such as "amber waves of grain" and "God shed his grace on thee" illustrated by images juxtaposing shuttered factories in the US with the Romney tax havens of Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland.

The attack on Romney as exemplar of the exploiter class has been so effective that the Republican candidate has gone rogue on his own resume, distancing himself from his private equity career. When Securities and Exchange Commission documents surfaced listing Romney as sole shareholder, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Bain through 2002, Romney cried like a stuck pig. Although he continued earning income as a Bain executive, he now claims it was a no-show job after 1999. (The assertion, made without irony, coincides with the Romney campaign accusing Obama of "crony capitalism.")

Romney is so spooked by the attack, he gave five network interviews on July 13, which means four of the interviewers didn't even work for Fox. Curiously, Romney's attempt to distinguish between "the owner of an entity" and the "person who's running an entity" did not clarify his political muddle. Republican strategist Ed Gillespie did Romney one better, describing Romney's untenable existential quandary -- being chairman and CEO of a company in which he had no role -- with a phrase that would make Orwell blush. Romney, Gillespie explained, had achieved a state of "retroactive retirement" in 2002. It was political doublespeak for the age of the Higgs boson.

Rather than surrender to demands that he release his tax returns, Romney instead insisted on a presidential apology -- the last refuge of a whiny candidate who looks even weaker when the apology never materializes.

Campaign requirement

Asking for tax returns, of course, is not a plot against the candidate; it is a requirement of running. In 1968, Mitt's father, George Romney, unfurled 12 years of returns as he sought the Republican presidential nomination. Mitt Romney turned over 23 years to the McCain campaign when he was being vetted for the 2008 ticket. His prospects declined when McCain's staff added Romney's houses to those McCain owned and the tally reached double digits.

We've had wealthy presidents before; wealth is practically a prerequisite for running. But a major-party candidate who stashes his riches in foreign tax havens is new. It's also not playing well to independent voters, 19 percent of whom say they are troubled by Romney's wealth.

Class warfare has been so good to Obama that he has opened up a lead in swing states, where Romney's favorable ratings have declined.

The battle isn't about Romney's wealth, and it's only partly about where he keeps it; mostly it's about how he made it. Romney piled companies with debt, extracted dividends and fees for himself and investors, and then walked away from the debt-laden carcasses as the jobs and pensions went bust.

Romney's experience would look good on an application for a job in private equity. It does not look good on an application for the White House.

Meanwhile, as Romney tries to get the bull's-eye off his back, the cool guy in the Oval Office is warming up on the campaign trail. "I'm one of you" is not a natural appeal for a son of Hawaii whose father hailed from Kenya and whose single mother spent much of her son's youth in Asia.

Yet getting personal has been working for Obama. He told a crowd last week in Pittsburgh about childhood travels with his mother, sister and grandmother on buses, trains and, once, on summer vacation, via the luxury of a rented car. He recalled staying at a Howard Johnson.

"It didn't matter how big the pool was," he said. "I'd jump in. I was 11 years old, and I was excited just to go to the vending machine and get the ice bucket and get the ice."

It's a scene millions of strapped Americans instantly recognize. Obama captured the universal kid experience of sitting in the back seat watching the world whiz by on the interstate, eager to plunge in to whatever comes next. Right now, it looks like it might be a second term.

Margaret Carlson
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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