Can the Obama Campaign Turn Mitt Romney Into Gordon Gekko?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 9 2012 7:57 PM

Starring Mitt Romney as Gordon Gekko

Can the Obama campaign turn the Republican nominee into a villain of corporate capitalism?

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Is it wise strategy for the Obama campaign to paint Mitt Romney as Gordon Gekko?

Still from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps © 2010 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Sometimes, you can understand why conservatives think that a “Democrat-Media Complex” is meeting, mind-melding, and plotting against them. We are living through one of those times.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

On the Fourth of July, Vanity Fair uploaded a 4,457-word investigative feature by Nicholas Shaxon about Mitt Romney’s offshore, tax-protected money—“$30 million in Bain Capital funds in the Cayman Islands alone?”

Four days later, President Obama’s surrogates appeared on cable and the networks to tell viewers to read past the Pippa Middleton story and check out Shaxon. “I've never known of a Swiss bank account to build an American bridge,” zinged Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. (The Los Angeles Times headline for these interviews was “Party surrogates rely on familiar talking points on Sunday shows.” Clip that one and stow it somewhere cold.)

Sunday afternoon, running into Monday morning, reporters started filing stories on the Range Rover-surfeited scene outside of Romney’s fundraisers in the Hamptons. One of these events, at a home owned by David Koch, was bracketed by bused-in Occupy and MoveOn protesters and buzzed by a plane with an anti-1-percent slogan: “ROMNEY HAS A KOCH PROBLEM.” The donors avoided the protesters but gave reporters quotes worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald characters.

Which takes us to Monday afternoon, and President Obama’s announcement that he wants to keep all of the Bush tax rates for households making less than $250,000. He campaigned on that in 2008. He campaigned on it in 2010. Nothing had changed except the hair color of his opponent. “Many members of the other party,” said Obama, “believe that prosperity comes from the top down—that if we spend trillions of dollars on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, that that will somehow unleash jobs and economic growth. I disagree.”

The “narrative” is a much-overrated thing in politics. The Romney campaign had wanted to discuss nothing but the weak June report of 80,000 new jobs. By the end of Monday, spokeswoman Amanda Hennenberg was sticking to that, saying that “tax increases on families and job creators will create more economic uncertainty.” There’s not going to be a massive recovery in the next three months. That matters more than any PR flanking maneuver. If Mitt Romney was replaced on the ticket by a cyborg that repeated the job, foreclosure, and household-debt numbers six times a day, the cyborg would get at least 240 electoral votes.

But campaigns do matter. The Obama campaign has been aware for at least a year that it must toxify its opponent. In an August 2011 Politico story, which the Romney campaign pounced on as proof that Obama was threatened and crazed by their candidate, Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith reported that “Obama officials intend to frame Romney as the very picture of greed in the great recession—a sort of political Gordon Gekko.”

Not just the Obama campaign. In October, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was peaking, the staff of the largely union-funded 501(c)(3) Americans United for Change brainstormed ideas for an anti-Romney campaign. “We saw that great picture, from Romney’s Bain years, where he’s holding up a dollar bill,” remembers AUC’s Lauren Weiner. “We wanted to use that for posters, and to build a campaign around it. Somebody  said ‘Gordon Gekko, greed is good.’ That stuck.”

It spread, but slowly. I first saw a “Romney/Gekko” sign in the wild at a ho-hum December protest of Romney’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. Like much Occupy agitprop, it was jokey and obvious, with a reference to a movie that came out before compact discs replaced vinyl and cell phones were small. Memorable, but not the kind of thing Democrats would run with. They had a more complicated relationship with private equity.

Indeed, according to Robert Draper’s profile of the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, the meme took months to plant. In early 2012, Priorities USA tested out themes and found that people didn’t believe that Romney—fending off challenges from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich—was all that right-wing. “When Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan,” wrote Draper, “and thus championed ‘ending Medicare as we know it,’ while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.” So Priorities told voters about the layoffs and benefit cuts at firms taken over by Bain Capital. That did the trick.

“When people think about who’s rich, who’s successful, they think of two archetypes,” says Priorities USA Action adviser Paul Begala. “The predominant one—he’s probably a smart guy. He probably earned it. That’s Bill Gates, that’s Steve Jobs. The other archetype is Gordon Gekko.”

So Romney was Gekko-ized. The risks of alienating other wealthy people, who might take this personally, were limited. Those people had turned on Obama years ago, telling reporters they were being scapegoated as “fat cats.” If the Obama campaign could give a microphone to only one of the people who made the Romney/Koch fundraiser, it might be Sharon Zambrelli, who told the Los Angeles Times what a disappointment Obama was after “all of Wall Street” wrote him checks. Romney has begun out-fundraising Obama. How do you shame him for that? Stuff the bags of money with blue paint bombs.

This isn’t original campaign strategy. In 2010, it wasn’t even successful strategy. But it matches up with Obama’s actual policy agenda, and it polls well. The last Gallup poll on taxes, from April, found 62 percent of people agreeing that “upper-income people” were paying “too little.” That was the highest positive response rate for the question since Obama was inaugurated. Is Obama’s plan to phase out all but the top-rate Bush tax cuts better than, say, progressive tax simplification? No. But it’s a hike that hits only 1.9 percent of taxpayers, many Romney supporters—and Mitt Romney! —among them.

That sort of lumpen, personalized policy attack can work. In 1992, when Begala was working for the Clinton-Gore campaign, they ran an ad attacking George H.W. Bush for getting a Texas resident’s tax break. “You can find George Bush doing just about everything at his home in Maine except paying Maine taxes,” sighed a narrator, as footage of the preppy, boating, president spooled. “When George Bush saves $165,000 in taxes, guess who makes up the difference? You do!”

A $165,000 tax break, spread out over hundreds of millions of Americans, is nothing. Romney might have saved exponentially more money in Switzerland and the Caymans. The president and his allies—no coordination!—will point that out.

“Look at the internals of those swing state polls,” says Begala. “ ‘On your side,’ ‘cares about people like you’—that’s where Romney has dropped in the swing states. That matters to me far more than the top-line vote. [Romney] began this with a fundamental falsehood about how he made his money, and that he will be about jobs as president. This is where his lack of a core and full-of-shit-ness is going to kill him.”

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.