Is Mitt Romney more like Gordon Gekko, the greedy anti-hero in the movie Wall Street, or Thurston Howell, the elitist millionaire in the TV show Gilligan's Island? Is he a rapacious, heartless capitalist with no conscience, or a conceited man of privilege who doesn't have a clue how the rest of us live but patronizingly believes he does?
The Obama campaign has chosen the Gekko frame to define Romney for the fall election and has staked its early advertising on it. But Howell may be an even better bet.
It is hard not to be moved by the recent Obama ads that portray Romney as a cold-blooded capitalist whose company, Bain Capital, single-mindedly extracted profits from businesses regardless of the human cost. Indeed an earlier version of these ads proved powerful when Senator Ted Kennedy fended off Romney's challenge in their 1994 Senate race.
Yet as effective as these ads may have been in 1994, they may be far less so today, and they even could boomerang against the president.
In 1994 Romney was caught off-guard with these attacks on Bain, and he had no convincing reply. But he's had nearly two decades to road test a response, which he did quite effectively during the GOP primaries after Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry accused him of vulture capitalism, and he now seems fully comfortable portraying Bain critics as angry, divisive, politically motivated, and ignorant of how the private sector works.
In fact he may be willing to take a few lumps to get his message across. "Having been in the private sector for 25 years gives me a perspective on how jobs are created that someone who's never spent a day in the private sector, like President Obama, simply doesn't understand," he told Time magazine.
To independents who run from partisan anger and see themselves as economically savvy, Romney's message may resonate. And it fits with the Republican meme about Obama -- that he is a liberal ideologue who's in over his head and amateurish about how to get the economy moving again. Even some Democrats cringe at the implications of Obama's attacks.
Yet Obama shouldn't shrink from questioning Romney's wealth. He only needs to fine-tune his approach a bit.
Romney is now familiar enough to most Americans that they may resist any attempt to demonize him as a political Gordon Gekko. But they are also familiar enough with his elitist mannerisms and outlook, with his various economic conceits, that portraying him as a Thurston Howell may be a far more successful strategy.
The result could be a powerful framing of Romney as an out-of-touch elitist who condescends to the rest of us and neither understands, identifies with, nor cares about the deep-seated dreams and aspirations of the American people.
Campaign strategists say that one of the most effective arrows in the political quiver is to define an opponent as "not one of us." Romney was at his weakest during the GOP primaries when he seemed like a man of privilege looking down on average Americans. That is precisely how Obama must portray him in the general election.
In a way that is far more clueless than Romney realizes, his run for the White House is driven by his conviction that he epitomizes the American Dream, that his life is a model of success to which every American aspires.
Repeatedly Romney equates prosperity with success, and he views the ability to become wealthy -- to join the "millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street" -- as central to the American Dream. To Romney, success is all about getting rich. "Those people who have been most successful," he told Matt Lauer on the Today Show, "will be in the one percent."
When he talks about how many Cadillacs his wife drives, when he makes $10,000 bets, when he invests in tax shelters overseas, or when he builds a new seaside mansion that has an elevator for his cars, he appears to think that Americans admire him for his prosperity and want to be exactly like him. "I will not apologize for having been successful," he says.
How revealing was his recent Liberty University commencement speech, in which he describes the worldly dreams and challenges we all face as "ambitions fulfilled, ambitions disappointed ... investments won, investments lost ... elections won, elections lost." Ambitions, investments, elections -- that's Mitt Romney, certainly not the rest of us.
The American people see life and its hopes differently. In fact many may feel put off by the idea that not being rich and having a portfolio means they haven't truly succeeded. To most Americans, success is about having a good and secure job, a home to raise their kids, the ability to enjoy free time, and the freedom never to worry about their health care or retirement needs.
Teachers may not get rich, but they feel enormous success when they inspire young people and contribute to the betterment of our country. Aerospace workers may not get rich, but their success comes through a secure job and the pride in building our next generation of airplanes. Civil engineers may not get rich, but as the brains behind our buildings and infrastructure, they feel tremendous success. The millions who work in nonprofits certainly won't get rich, but it's value of what they do that makes them feel successful.
There's a humility to the American Dream, something the super-rich like Romney don't appreciate or understand when they proclaim their success as the paradigm for us all. Americans want to do well in life, but unlike Romney, the American Dream doesn't necessarily mean focusing solely on money. The more Romney lectures us about success, the more he shows how out of touch he is.
According to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, when Americans were asked to define the American Dream, "becoming rich" was next to last among twelve factors. As the New York Times observed, Americans define "the American dream not in terms of mansions and luxury cars but as something more basic -- a home, a college degree, financial security and enough left over for a few extras like dining out."
Mitt Romney is so detached from this version of the American Dream that he honestly thinks the rest of us should be grateful when rich people create jobs. Those who become rich, he says, "help make us all better off." Yet when he boasts of creating 100,000 jobs from his work at Bain Capital, which is his version of making the rest of us "better off," he neglects to say what types of jobs these were.
At Staples, Sports Authority and Domino's, the three Bain success stories Romney hails, a typical employee earns about $10 per hour, right at the poverty level for a family of four and less than one-third the median income for four-person families living in the United States.
So while Romney and his ilk get rich, the supposed beneficiaries of his economic know-how barely get a livable wage, and he thinks we should thank him for it. The more Romney brags about his ability to create jobs without mentioning the types of jobs he's created, the more he reveals how little he knows about the American Dream and the lives of Americans who don't share his privilege.
The Obama campaign should hit back at Romney and tell him that no, Americans don't envy his success, that it's not the rich but the American people through their hard work and education and sacrifice that made this country prosperous, that the American Dream is not about building mansions and owning horses and having Swiss bank accounts but rather about a good, secure and meaningful life that provides for our loved ones and doesn't fear the future.
Romney often accuses Obama of penalizing success, but the president must turn that around by showing how Democratic policies actually support the success of all Americans whereas Romney and the Republicans promote policies that benefit only the wealthiest few. It's Romney who penalizes success, Obama should argue, because from his lofty perch hobnobbing with sports team owners and private equity billionaires he really doesn't understand what most Americans want for their lives.
The president needs to make the case that a healthy private sector is necessary but not sufficient for achieving the American Dream, that Americans gain their sense of security not just through decent jobs but through popular initiatives such as Social Security, Medicare, universal health care, a good transportation system, student loans, and laws that keep workers safe and Wall Street contributing to rather than wrecking the economy.
In other words, we don't owe thanks to rich people, as Romney would have us believe. If anything, they owe us for building a society that enables some to get wealthy and most others to find contentment through their own version of what it means to succeed. Americans favor taxing those whose wallets have benefited most from our country, but this isn't about redistribution or penalizing success -- it's about paying for the policies that support our American Dream.
So go ahead and make your money, Mitt Romney, but it wasn't solely on your own that you earned your riches -- it was from standing on the shoulders of the American people and the society we've built. And stop patronizing us by saying that the wealthiest are the most successful in America. Yes, you may be successful, but guess what? In our own way the rest of us are too. We just define it differently from you.
Karl Rove often says that the best political campaign is one that goes after its opponent's strengths, not weaknesses. Mitt Romney sees his version of success as the strength of his candidacy. If framed correctly, it actually could turn into his biggest weakness.