How Romney's Wealth Can Shake Up American Politics

Here is Mitt as Everyman: tucked behind the wheel of a Chrysler, taking a leisurely drive through Detroit, asking the camera how the liberals and the unions have managed to bring this once-proud city so low. The ad, one of his latest, cuts from Mitt Romney in the driver's seat, to derelict houses, to Technicolor footage of workers pouring out of auto plants in happier times. It ends on a black-and-white photo of a twentysomething Romney and his wife at the window of a modest suburban home, their station wagon just visible out the window.

Every candidate for president carries the burden of appearing average. But on Romney, the burden rests heavier than on most. The man in the Chrysler is, after all, among the wealthiest candidates for president we've ever seen, owner of a fortune so big that it can only be estimated: "between a $150 and about $200 and some odd million," as Romney put it.

Whether or not voters ought to care about that kind of wealth in a potential president, they clearly do. In 2008, John McCain's campaign was crippled when he confessed that he couldn't remember how many houses he owned. And in this Republican primary, every reminder that Romney can buy and sell the candidates sharing a debate stage with him -- the unscripted aside that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs," the spontaneous $10,000 bet offered to Rick Perry, the revelations of his offshore bank accounts, the claim that $374,000 in one year's speaking fees added up to "not very much" -- has put a new dent in his inevitability.

As long as Romney's wealth stands in the way of his connection with voters, he has two options. He can pretend it doesn't exist. Or he can own it. For Mitt's sake -- and more importantly, for ours -- I hope he owns it, proudly and forthrightly. It's the only way we're going to have an overdue debate about the ways in which public office is increasingly becoming the preserve of the wealthy.

It takes a special sort of politician to convincingly play Average Joe Millionaire. George W. Bush pulled it off, with the help of a Texas accent and plentiful footage of brush-clearing. Romney, by contrast, seems palpably uncomfortable in the role: as often as he mentions his love for McDonald's or flying Southwest, he's much more at ease when he lets the cultural populism drop, asserting that yes, he is a charter member of the 1%, and no, we shouldn't have a problem with that.

Here's how Romney put it at a Republican debate last month:

I know that there may be some who's try to make a big deal of that.... But I think it's important for people to make sure we don't castigate individuals who've been successful, innuendo suggest there's something wrong with being successful and having investments. Let's put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money. And let's get Republicans to say, you know what, what you've accomplished in your life shouldn't be seen as a detriment. It should be seen as an asset to help America.

A Romney advisor called that one of Mitt's "strongest moments" of the campaign.

But an even more telling defense of the independently wealthy candidate came in a debate earlier that month, when Romney approvingly quoted some advice from his father, the former governor of Michigan and president of American Motors: "Never get involved in politics if you have to win election to pay a mortgage."

That thought deserves more attention than it's gotten, because it's among the most conservative things Romney has ever said. It's not simply a claim that wealth shouldn't matter. It's an argument that a rich man is uniquely qualified to serve in office, because he is uniquely disinterested. Secure in his position, beholden to no one, stripped of the normal incentives to pander and demagogue to remain in power, the independently wealthy politician is ideally qualified to make difficult decisions in the public interest. We sometimes hear claims like that from self-financed independent candidates, like Ross Perot -- but rarely, if ever, do we hear it put so directly by the prospective nominee of one of the two major parties.

That's too bad, because Romney's point -- that wealth correlates with good political judgment, and relative neediness correlates with bad or nakedly self-serving judgment -- has a long and influential history in western political thought. It decisively shaped our nation and its Constitution, from its toleration of property qualifications for voters, to its placement of the choice of president in the hands of an Electoral College insulated from the public, to its indirect election of senators (a provision that much of the Tea Party right wants to bring back).

Many of the Constitution's framers openly equated wealth and public spirit. John Dickinson called the restriction of voting rights "a necessary defense against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle" -- taking it as a given that principle demanded property. His Pennsylvania colleague Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the Constitution's Preamble, took up the same theme: "The time is not distant when this country will abound with mechanics and manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be the secure and faithful guardians of liberty?"

Dickinson and Morris were simply stating the conventional wisdom: in the struggle for self-interest that is politics, the only impartial arbiters -- the only ones who can afford principle -- are those whose needs are already met. No one put the case more eloquently than Edmund Burke, a conservative British thinker of the same era. He described at length the political virtues that belong to the propertied "gentleman":

To be bred in a place of estimation; to see nothing low and sordid from one's infancy; to be taught to respect one's self; to be habituated to the censorial inspection of the public eye; to look early to public opinion; to stand upon such elevated ground as to be enabled to take a large view of the widespread and infinitely diversified combinations of men and affairs in a large society; to have leisure to read, to reflect, to be led to a guarded and regulated conduct, from a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow-citizens in their highest concerns... to be amongst rich traders, who from their success are presumed to have sharp and vigorous understandings, and to possess the virtues of diligence, order, constancy, and regularity....

Each of these 18th-century figures supported the American Revolution -- but they also considered it their responsibility to check the egalitarian tendencies of a revolutionary age. They believed that they were reasserting an enduring and self-evident truth about politics, one informed by their deep grounding in classical history. When they picked up the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, they read stories of the ceaseless conflict between "the multitude," out for itself at the expense of the state, and "the best citizens," the aristocratic factions with the state's interest at heart. When they picked up Aristotle's Politics, they found the philosopher questioning whether an artisan or a farmer could ever develop the virtue, or even find the leisure, to exercise power wisely.

So when Mitt Romney talks about his wealth as a qualification for office, he's expressing an idea that's been in the mainstream of political thought for a very, very long time, an idea with some eminently respectable advocates. Of course, we can write those advocates off as privileged men cynically defending their own position with any argument at hand. But I think that response misses the deep appeal of their idea. It's the promise that there actually is an impartial point outside the zero-sum fight of politics, that it's possible to be governed by someone who's simply beyond caring about grubby realities like the next election, or the top donors, or the emotional state of the party base.

But I don't believe that that point, or that politician, has ever existed. We don't have to look any further than Mitt Romney to see why. If the picture painted by Dickinson, Morris, and Burke were true to life, Romney would be an absolutely fearless candidate. His attitude toward the presidency would be "take it or leave it." Liberated from any need to win, he'd be free to swear off pandering, to confront his party's base when it came into conflict with his own more moderate tendencies, to do a campaign-trail impression of a loose-tongued, retiring politician serving out the last few months of a term.

Of course, that's a fantasy compared to what most campaign observers see in the actual Romney, from his opportunistic repositionings on abortion, the auto bailout, global warming, and more; to his severely negative campaign tactics; to his maddeningly content-free stump speech. Romney seems characterized by a desperation to win. That's not a surprising trait in a high-level politician -- but if wealth were a political virtue, it's a trait we wouldn't expect to find in Mitt Romney.

One exception doesn't disprove the entire, age-old case, but Romney's example does point to something more substantial. With all the money in the world, there's still no getting "above" politics. In a democracy, winning and keeping political power means being beholden to people and interests beyond one's own impartial judgment. There's no alternative to the occasional ugliness of coalition-building, interest-group pandering, favor-trading, and all the rest.

So if I don't agree that Romney's wealth somehow exempts him from the ordinary indignities of politics, why do I want him to keep arguing that it does? Because this is a conversation that we desperately need to have. Founding fathers who insisted that the mass of Americans were "without property and without principle" may sound hopelessly backward to our more egalitarian ears. But at least they made a principled case that the economic elite should also be the political elite. Today, they seem to have gotten their wish -- yet we're far less likely to hear a clearly-stated reason why that should be so.

Almost half of the members of Congress are millionaires. In the Senate, it's practically a requirement: that body's median net worth is $2.63 million. And over the past decades, the unrepresentative nature of Congress has exploded along with America's income inequality: since 1984, the median net worth of House members has almost tripled. It goes without saying that Americans will be voting for a millionaire president in November: from the leading Republican candidates to President Obama (net worth: $5 million), there isn't a non-millionaire in the bunch.

Is that irrelevant? Does it produce a government of bipartisan public spirit? Does it produce a political establishment out of touch with ordinary Americans' struggles? The answer is clear enough to me. But what is special about Romney's candidacy is his rare willingness to even broach the topic of government by the rich and its consequences. He thinks it's a good thing. Whether or not we agree, Romney's tendency to flirt with the topic should be encouraged, in the interest of an election debate of more substance, and more importance for Americans' lives, than, say, whether President Obama"apologizes for America."

Romney's liberal critics can try to confine the conversation about his wealth to his "relatability"; they can treat his every mention that he is, in fact, rich as an embarrassing "gaffe." That might be the lower-risk strategy. But if liberals really have a problem with a Congress and a presidency of millionaires, they ought to take Romney's talk about his wealth at face value and engage it seriously. If Romney's candidacy shakes more Americans out of indifference toward government by the 1%, that would be a public service more valuable than anything contemplated in his campaign platform.