Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mitt Romney, Champion of the Working Class

Once you wade past the right-wing talking points and demagoguery, which means roughly the first 2/3 of his column, Michael Gerson has some interesting (and terrible) advice for Mitt Romney: To admit that our nation has rigid social classes and terrible class mobility, and to paint himself as the person to bring about change. Gerson draws our attention "across the pond" to Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and Deputy Prime Minister under a coalition deal with the ruling Conservative Party.

Gerson appears to know little about the U.K., its class structure or its politics. British culture is full of class markers, from accents and dialects that give away your region of birth, and quite possibly also your social class, to a literal House of Lords, as distinguished from the House of Commons, a bloated entity filled with life-tenured appointees, resistant to reform. Yes, "The topic of class comes more naturally to British than to American politicians" because, when you talk about class in the U.K., nobody pretends that everybody in the nation is part of a vast "middle class" or reflexively accuses you of engaging in "class warfare".

Before teaming with the Conservative Party, Clegg was better positioned to claim to be the child of great fortune who wanted to help his fellow man by leading a party that claims to speak up for the common man. Since that time, to put it mildly, Clegg has struggled with issues of credibility. Gerson clearly believes that adopting Clegg's rhetoric would serve Romney better than it has served Clegg, but let's that Clegg presently has an 16% approval rating and a 75% disapproval rating. Clegg's speech isn't working for him because he burned up his credibility on these issues. Romney has none to begin with.

Gerson found Clegg's speech to be substantive; I did not. The most substantive proposal I saw was for spending additional money on educational initiatives, principally for preschool education. Having cheap or free, high quality preschool is a valid policy position, which Clegg endorses, but "We'll spend more and get better results" is not.

Gerson explains his theory of how discussion of class mobility could help Romney,
As a governing matter, encouraging social mobility could eventually be a unifying, bipartisan goal. As a political matter, it would provide Romney a particular advantage. Obama’s message is now in full Labor Party mode: Soak the rich. But the smartest Republican response is not to defend the rich. It is to defend a fluid society in which everyone has the possibility of becoming richer.
Sure, Romney can talk about "promoting early-childhood education, high school completion, college attendance and graduation, parenting skills and wealth-building among the disadvantaged", but while Clegg was willing to put a $19 billion price tag on his initiatives, is Romney going to make a similarly sized proposal to back up his own? Adjusted for population, roughly $114 billion? I didn't think so.

Gerson complains that Labor's response to Clegg amounts to the position that "that leveling equality is more important than opportunity", sneering, "Along the way, Miliband delivered this trans-Atlantic taunt: 'If you want the American Dream — go to Finland.'" Except that statement is explicitly about income mobility - he was pointing out that nations such as Finland, which have less wealth inequality, also have more class mobility.

YouTube is already dripping with Romney quotes that would undermine the argument that he either understands or cares about social mobility. You want an alternative to college? Borrow $20 grand from your parents and start a business. You're unemployed? "I'm also unemployed." Also, as Gerson knows, Romney's tax plan slashes taxes for the rich, cuts benefits for the poor and middle class, and increases the deficit. Gerson wants Romney to become the new John Edwards, spokesmodel for those on the losing side of the "Two Americas"? And he thinks that would work?

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