The woman who addressed Mitt Romney at a town hall Friday in Tilton, N.H., had heard plenty about the candidate's personal wealth. He owned multiple houses, and had a multi-million-dollar fortune. She suggested, as reported by The Washington Post, that the best way to deliver tax cuts to a middle class that desperately wants a hand up in this ongoing recession, might be for Romney and his ilk to make some personal sacrifice.
“I’m a middle-class American like a lot of people here and we’re all hurting – we really are,” she said. “It’s a little hard for me because I know you’re a multi-millionaire. I read that you have four houses. Would you be willing to give up some of that so that we middle Americans could get some tax cuts?”
At first, Romney seemed a bit befuddled by the question. “That’s a good idea,” he replied, laughing.
But quickly, the former Massachusetts governor made a correction. “Let’s see, well, I don’t have four houses, that’s number one, although it’s a good idea.”
Romney's wealth is a boon as well as a burden for the candiate. As an indicator of his private sector business acumen, it helps with the contrast he's trying to draw with the increasingly populist President Obama, who Romney says would "substitute envy for ambition and poison the American spirit by pitting one American against another and engaging in class warfare." But it's also a wealth of a different sort than the merely upper class financial strata from which we're lately used to choosing candidates and presidents.
Romney is the "richest candidate in a decade," Robert Frank reported recently in The Wall Street Journal. And he understands that that fortune of his — at about $250 million, the biggest for a candidate since Steve Forbes' in 2000 — could be used against him by rivals who wish to paint him as out of touch with regular people.
Mitt Romney is facing increasing criticism (even among fellow Republicans) for his personal fortune and his perch atop the American elite. For anyone who doubts the voter unease with the rich, look no further than Romney himself, who called Newt Gingrich “a wealthy man.” And he didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Should Romney make it to the nomination, he should also expect criticism from Democrats and outside interest groups who would charge the candidate with doing the inverse of what that voter in Tilton wanted him to do: giving far more benefit to the wealthy than to the struggling middle class. The real class warfare is Romney's tax plan, says The American Prospect, citing a Tax Policy Center report that found Romney's plan would save the middle class $1,400 per year on their taxes, but save the wealthiest taxpayers as much as $171,000. The plan is "very progressive, by 15th-century standards," The Economist noted, in all seriousness:
In early Renaissance Florence, as Tim Parks explains in his highly readable "Medici Money", almost all state revenues were raised from excise taxes on consumption, while the holdings of the wealthy were exempt from almost any form of routine taxation. This state of affairs persisted until 1427, when the cost of hiring mercenaries to protect the city from the Duke of Milan, the French, and basically everyone else in the free-for-all of Italian politics rose so high that they had to introduce a universal tax called the catasto. This exempted about a third of the poorest households, while everyone over a certain level of income had to pay a flat tax of 0.5% on their wealth—a wildly progressive move in its day.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney stands before voters in New Hampshire (with, it should be noted, a lead in the polls over his fellow Republicans), and at least on occasion has to answer for his wealth. The best thing for the middle class, Romney assured his questioner in Tilton, would be a Romney presidency — and, presumably, that tax plan of his — because it's better than the Obama alternative, and because Romney will "get jobs for middle-income Americans."
More directly answering the thrust of the question — why shouldn't the wealthiest people in the country have to pay a little more? — Romney countered with a line from the most revered political figure in this Republican field not named Ronald.
Again, from The Post:
“I know that there are some who say, `Let’s just get more money from the higher-income people, let’s just tax them some more.’ And I understand that’s popular in a lot of people’s minds. But just don’t forget that old Margaret Thatcher line: ‘Sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.’”