The last president to rival Romney's wealth was this sort of self-made man. Herbert Hoover rose from pushing ore carts in Nevada to developing mines worldwide, amassing some $93 million in today's dollars. Romney's net worth is between $190 and $255 million, though he carries less economic power than Hoover's fortune did in his day. Hoover was also a blacksmith's son. Romney's father was an auto executive and governor. But the younger Romney made his own fortune. The debate is over how and at whose expense.
Romney's job at Bain was to make wealthy investors wealthier. Bain required a $1 million minimum investment to participate. Those funds helped develop success stories like Staples. It often meant downsizing as well. Romney's investors generally profited whether the investment did or not.
At first blush, it seems so easy for the left: define Romney as a greedy moneyman, or as "The Man" closing down industrial America. His persona evokes the worst stereotypes of his party and plutocracy. It's reminiscent of John Kerry. Recall Kerry's Boston Brahmin manner and his reference to "Lambert Field."
Kerry's personal net worth, in 2004, was roughly equivalent to Romney's. But if Kerry's assets were combined his wife's fortune, and he won, Kerry probably would have been the wealthiest president ever. Republicans battered Kerry for it. One conservative group spoofed MasterCard's "priceless" commercial. To violins, the ad catalogued the cost of Kerry's haircut ($75), shirts ($250), yacht ($1 million), and mansions ($30 million). It closed: "Another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people...priceless."
Kerry fit the image of the "limousine liberal." Cultural populists had a near-ideal antagonist. Economist populists have the same in Romney. Political attacks stick when they confirm preconceived conceptions. Americans still see Republicans as the party of the rich and have, according to polls, for at least a half-century.
This makes Romney an awkward GOP advocate. For example, he opposes ending the hedge-fund tax loophole. That's par for the Republican course, but the loophole also enriches Romney personally. He earned about $21 million annually, in the past two years, at a tax rate of about 14 and 15 percent.
And there are those words. Obama has his gaffes (e.g., "the private sector is doing fine") but Romney's verbal missteps have repeatedly played into Democratic strategies -- "I like firing people," "I'm also unemployed," "I'm not concerned about the very poor." A new anti-Romney Spanish language ad contrasts these words against the times.
But will populism, even today, sway a famously capitalistic electorate?
TEPID POPULISM AND WALL STREET'S PALL
Americans have a populist streak. Three-quarters of the public believe that "there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies." About six in 10 Americans "disagree" that "corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest," according to Pew.