Every presidential race has a few key moments and phrases that define it years after the race has come to an end. The 1980 campaign had the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The 1988 campaign had the Willie Horton ad. 1992 had "It's the economy stupid" and "I didn't inhale." Amidst the temporary distraction of words like "Tiffany's account" and "open marriage" there will likely be three words that we will all remember after the 2012 presidential campaign is long over: "I didn't inherit."
At the beginning of the GOP primary former Gov. Mitt Romney was preoccupied with trying to convince voters that he was or was not the various political caricatures his opponents (and his own record) painted him as, the most obvious (and likable in my book) being Mitt the Moderate. So he has spent much of the last few months trying to convince us all (or primary voters at least), that he is reliably pro-life, pro-gun control and anti-gay rights. But as tax-gate threatened to engulf his campaign, particularly after his spectacular implosion in South Carolina, Romney has now moved on to trying to convince us of something even more unbelievable: that he's earned everything he has.
It's widely accepted by commentators and political analysts, across party lines, that in most debates Romney has conveyed a level of discomfort with discussing his wealth that seriously threatened to derail his campaign. What no one seemed to agree on is exactly why that is. Is he simply from a background in which discussion of money is considered crass? Or is it that he simply felt uneasy with the topic early on because he and his advisers had not yet decided on talking points for addressing some of the more politically challenging elements of his wealth such as those Swiss and Cayman Islands accounts? But since his South Carolina thrashing it seems that they have finally decided on a talking point -- a bad one.
I, and anyone else who follows politics the same way most follow football, know when something has officially become a political consultant vetted talking point because it pops up over and over again. A reporter asks a candidate how his day is going and he replies, "Great. But not as great as it will be for all Americans once I implement [INSERT TALKING POINT] policy proposal." So when Mitt Romney made a point to say in his post State of the Union Address interview, as well as in the last two debates, "I didn't inherit," followed by some impassioned version of "I earned everything I have" or "I earned all of my money," -- clinging to the messages like a life raft whenever he found himself under wealth related attacks -- it was obvious it was his political consultants talking. If they keep talking that way they might just end up talking a candidate into the White House after all, only it won't be their candidate but the one that already lives there.
See here's the problem with Romney's "I didn't inherit" comments, they simply don't ring true. There's not a single person on this planet that looks at Mitt Romney and believes he "didn't inherit" (and the New York Times has validated this suspicion.) The first time I heard him say it I actually laughed. (Actually I laughed and tweeted simultaneously if I remember correctly.) Let me be clear before anyone starts typing up an angry email. I believe Mitt Romney's a smart man and a hard worker. But I also believe his repeated attempts at trying to convince us, and possibly himself, that he is not a walking, talking beneficiary of the world's oldest form of affirmative action either proves that he's A) disingenuous (which conservatives have already accused him of) or B) disconnected (which just about everyone else has accused him of.) (Click here to see a list of the richest presidential candidates.)
Within minutes of Romney debuting the "I didn't inherit" line nationally, the New York Times had already debunked it with his own words. According to an earlier interview, he did inherit money upon his father's death. Romney claims he and his wife chose to donate the money to charity. That makes sense, considering the younger Romney was nearly 50 when his father passed and was already extremely wealthy by that point, helped along in no small part by his father's wealth and connections. Besides his entry into Harvard, which has served as a finishing school for the sons and daughters of political leaders of both major American political parties over the years, his father fronted he and his wife the funds for their first home. To the wealthy, this may seem a relatively minor contribution in a world in which a million dollars doesn't make someone rich enough to endure additional taxes, (or in which more than a quarter of a million in speaking fees isn't a lot of money) but to those who have graduated with student loans, and no jobs, in the age of the mortgage crisis and have subsequently given up on their own dream of homeownership, having a papa who can float you in adulthood sounds like a dream come true.
As I have said in previous pieces, I don't begrudge wealth or the wealthy. (And because my wealthy friends seem to have gotten a kick out of this line the first time around I guess it bears repeating: Some of my best friends are wealthy.) But most of them recognize that there are advantages they were born with most of us were not. In most -- not all but most -- cases they were born to wealthy or powerful or extremely well-educated parents, usually some combination of all three. Sound familiar Gov. Romney?
No you may not have "inherited" a blank check from your dad the day you turned 21, but you inherited something arguably more valuable. A name that opened doors for you before you even knocked, and a rolodex filled with connections that saved you the trouble of searching for said door in the first place like most of us.
Herman Cain may have a lot of flaws, but he is at least someone who can say with a straight face "I didn't inherit" and mean it. Mitt Romney may be able to say it with a straight face, but voters -- except possibly other members of the 1% born and raised club -- are unlikely to buy it. While there may be enough of them to buy political ads, there aren't enough of them to buy an election, which presents a problem for the former governor.
According to a focus group, blue-collar workers in Ohio didn't hear class warfare in President Obama's State of the Union Address. They heard a rallying cry for the middle class. So either Mitt Romney better get used to saying, "I realize I was born with a lot of advantages other people were not and I recognize that, but my family raised me to work hard and my family's success is proof that the American Dream is possible for everyone," or he better get used to becoming a presidential trivia question years from now, right alongside his Massachusetts predecessor Gov. Michael "Willie Horton" Dukakis.
Follow Keli Goff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keligoff