“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.”