GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney foolishly revived the dust-up about his income tax secrecy last week. He claimed he paid at least 13 percent, an assertion easy enough for him to prove by releasing his tax documents.
But he's refusing to do that. He called the concern about his tax rate "small-minded." Much more important issues overshadow it, he contended.
Maybe so. But the American people, the Average Jane and Joe, do care whether Romney used tricks and loopholes and offshore accounts to manipulate the tax system and pay nothing. And they're not "small-minded," as Romney accused them of being, for wanting to know.
For them, a quarter billionaire who paid nothing or paid a rate lower than the middle class lacks the principles they like in a president. The vast majority of voters aren't going to dissect the budget proposed by Romney's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, but they will vote based on the values it reveals. Romney's ability to rattle off technical details won't decide the election. Morality, or Jane and Joe's perception that Ryan and Romney's policies lack it, will.
Other millionaires have led the nation. In fact, the majority of those in the past presidents club were millionaires. But some of the nation's wealthy presidents had spent time with America's Average Janes and Joes and understood their dreams and struggles and were sympathetic to them.
Though raised on an estate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew suffering firsthand after being cut down by polio as a young man. He spent long periods with working men and women in Southern recuperation centers as he tried in vain to get his legs to work again. Immediately after his election to the presidency, he launched programs to aid the impoverished.
By contrast, Romney and Ryan, both raised in privilege, have demonstrated remarkable insensitivity to everyday Americans.
Romney, scion of a Detroit car company executive, said as GM and Chrysler struggled in the midst of the Great Recession, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." He'd have countenanced an uncontrolled bankruptcy for the two corporations, costing tens of thousands of middle-class workers at assembly plants, car dealerships and auto part manufacturers their jobs, their homes and their hopes. He'd have done nothing and let them all suffer. There's a certain carelessness, a heartlessness to that. Those aren't values many middle-class workers cherish in a president.
Ryan also grew up without having to worry about money, in a small town where his family owned a construction business and his father was a lawyer. Because his father died when Ryan was 16, Social Security helped him pay for college. Ryan's plans, however, imperil Social Security for future generations, for the next decade's 16 year olds who lose fathers.
Ryan sponsored legislation during the Bush administration to privatize Social Security, allowing the fund to be weakened by the draining of untold billions that would be risked on Wall Street, on the very stock market that crashed during the last year of Bush's reign, sucking the value out of private pension funds. Many middle-class workers don't find gambling with their retirement security attractive in a president.
Ryan and Romney are in trouble with America's Average Janes and Joes over their tax proposals as well. Romney says he wants to cut income taxes by 20 percent for everyone, which he claims he would pay for by ending tax deductions. He has declined to specify which ones, however. Here's what the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center said about his plan: it would cost the wealthy like Ryan and Romney less and the Average Jane and Joe more.
That's right. Specifically, the plan would reduce taxes each year for the nation's wealthiest 5 percent, ranging from a cut of $1,800 for the least rich to nearly $250,000 for the richest. For the other 95 percent of taxpayers, the nation's middle class, Romney's "tax cut" would mean a tax increase averaging $500 per household because, the Tax Policy Center said, tax breaks that the middle class depends on, like the one for mortgages, would disappear. The center said it was a fantasy for Romney to suggest he could fund his plan by eliminating only tax breaks for the rich.
The Average Jane and Joe may not read the entire report. But they do understand this one key fact: The Romney tax plan will cost them more and Romney less. Many will find the injustice of that to be unattractive in a president.
Similarly, Ryan's budget "Roadmap" would also lower Romney's tax rate. Ryan would require him to pay less than 1 percent. That's because the vast majority of Romney's $21 million income in 2010 came from capital gains, interest and dividends, and Ryan would eliminate all taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends.
Most middle-class household income, all of $50,000 a year and declining, comes from wages, not capital gains, interest and dividends. So those families would be paying rates way higher than 1 percent. In fact, the Tax Policy Center determined that Ryan's budget would raise taxes on the bottom 30 percent of wage earners.
The Average Jane and Joe may not memorize all those facts and figures. But they will recall that Ryan wants quarter billionaires to pay 1 percent and them to pay way more. That's just galling. Far from what the middle class finds to be a desirable trait in a vice president.
When a reporter asked Romney about his tax rates last week, the Republican candidate had just finished lecturing the ensemble on the intricacies of his Medicare plan, using a white board.
What Romney can't comprehend is that for the middle class, it's not the numbers.
What the Average Jane and Joe will recall is that Romney and Ryan plan to privatize Medicare, to destroy a beloved program on which the middle class depends. What they'll know about Romney and Ryan is that their proposed policies show they don't have a clue what it's like to struggle. And don't care. Carelessness is not a quality the middle class finds desirable in the occupants of the Oval Office.