The complaint that those of us who frequently refer to the nation's breathtaking disparity in wealth and income and to its 46 million poor are engaging in "class warfare" usually comes from people, like Mitt Romney, who live in the highest end of American class structure. They always throw the red flags.
"I think it's dangerous, this class warfare," Mr. Romney said of the Occupy Wall Street protests last fall. Campaigning toward yesterday's presidential primary in South Carolina, he accused Newt Gingrich, a fellow multimillionaire, of sowing "class warfare" with his criticisms of Mr. Romney's legacy at Bain Capital.
Republicans in Congress grouse about "class warfare" when anyone, foremost President Barack Obama, suggests that millionaires should pay more in taxes as the nation emerges from the Great Recession and confronts massive federal deficits. You can't seem to have a conversation about taxes, fairness and the common good without being accused of class envy.
As for Mr. Romney, it's clear why he would accuse critics of engaging in "class warfare." He's an OPfc (One-Percenter, first class) running for president at a time when millions of Americans are still hurting from a recession brought on by the greed and misdeeds of his brethren in the world of high finance. Everything he believes about capitalism and the free market has been questioned in the wake of the Great Recession. He's fully vested in Reaganism — lower taxes for the wealthy and less regulation of commerce and industry means trickle-down prosperity for everyone — and he's not about to change that tune, even as more Americans smarten up and reject it.
So he's on the defensive, and probably still shocked that fellow Republicans would call him a "predatory capitalist" and a "vulture capitalist." Didn't they all embrace the "get mine" ideology at the heart of American capitalism in the last three decades? Weren't they all in the same room when it was decided that the nation's industries were moribund and burdened with too many union workers? Didn't they all believe that quarterly growth was good above all else, and that the old gray suits who settled for modest gains from their companies needed to be shaken, rattled and even rolled? Didn't Bain Capital, in the words of a Wall Street Journal writer, "save America"?
No wonder Mr. Romney throws the "class warfare" flag.
"My goodness," Mr. Romney told a group in South Carolina. "I listened to Speaker Gingrich the other night [criticize] some of the enterprises I've been involved in. I'm proud that I've been involved in the private sector."
No one begrudges a man his fortune. But, if you're running for president as an experienced businessman, bragging about having created jobs, people have a right to know if that's true and how you made your big money.
Bain Capital was not about creating jobs; it was about giving investors the best returns on their millions.
In the years that private equity funds "saved America," the nation saw the gap between the rich and everyone else widen to historic extremes, the decline of the middle class, stagnant wages, a further loss (10 percent) of private-sector union jobs, plant closings, obscene executive compensation, and the aforementioned financial misdeeds and meltdown, leading to the Great Recession just as Mr. Obama was coming into office. TheU.S. Census Bureausays 48 percent of the country is now low-income or poor.
Pointing all this out is not "class warfare." It's mere exposition of facts that people, like Mr. Romney, are either too obtuse or dishonest to recognize.
Timing is everything — in love, comedy and politics. Mr. Romney presents as the totally wrong candidate for 2012, not because he's a multimillionaire but because of the kind of multimillionaire he is. He made his fortune from leveraged buyouts, and no prospectus from his company ever suggested Bain was a job creator. He only pays about 15 percent of his annual earnings in income taxes, while millions of Americans pay 25 percent to 35 percent — and he'd like to keep it that way. The other day, he casually dismissed the $374,000 he made in 2010 from speaking fees as "not very much."
If there was a class war in this country, Mr. Romney's class has already won it, and now they want the presidency again, and even more power. When you're an OPfc, you never have enough.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM. His email is email@example.com.