04/20/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mitt Romney and the Wealth Answer

On Monday, April 16, 2012, Diane Sawyer posed an important question to Mitt Romney during an ABC "Newsmakers" interview. She explained that a number of individuals had submitted questions online that essentially asked, "Is Mitt Romney too rich to relate?"

Romney sat with a fixed smile and blinked at regular intervals before he delivered a non-sequitur: "We don't divide America based upon success and wealth and other dimensions of that nature. We're one nation under God. We come together. This is a time when people of different backgrounds and different experiences need to come together." His response is Palin-esque in its detachment from the substance of the question, but lacks her "folksy" charm. Romney retreats into the first person plural, uses the convoluted phrase "other dimensions of that nature," and then calls for unity as if the nation is riven by some civil calamity. In short, Romney evades the question.

It seems inconceivable that Romney has not yet prepared a carefully scripted, campaign-rousing response to questions related to his wealth. His personal fortune is no secret. He first disclosed his net worth in May 2007  during his grueling campaign for the Republican nomination that he ultimately lost to John McCain. Romney's primary defeat made sense. The 2008 primary focused on national security, and a war hero like John McCain provided an excellent contrast to the rising star of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama. However, by the time of the election, the conversation had shifted to topics of Romney's expertise. Talk of "drone strikes" and "surges" gave way to lamentations about "credit default swaps" and "subprime loans." The subsequent bloom of the financial crisis made it easy to imagine that candidate Romney was eagerly plotting his 2012 comeback in some undisclosed conference room while reclining in an indescribably posh office chair.

This may explain why even Rush Limbaugh sounded exasperated with Romney's inability to answer what he considered "a softball" question. Limbaugh complained that Romney sounds "a little embarrassed of his wealth," but that he should not be: "He should be happy! He should be proud to explain how it [his wealth] happened." Befuddled, Limbaugh then puzzles over the premise of the question, "What is it about being rich that makes people unable to relate?"

At this point, Limbaugh offers Romney exactly the wrong advice: "Change the concept of 'wealth' and equate it to hard work."

At first, Limbaugh's advice seems sound. No one contests that hard work can lead to wealth. No one denies that Barack Obama, Sam Walton and Steve Jobs earned their wealth through hard work. In fact, elementary schools across the country pummel the susceptible minds of children with similarly alluring rags to riches tales. Students embrace them with the fervor with which teens in the nineteenth century devoured the novels of Horatio Alger. For the most part, Americans are born and bred to crave wealth.

But Romney's life is no Horatio Alger tale. He was never "coarsely dressed... in shoes of cowhide." It was all riches and no rags in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. All baby Mitt had to do was breathe to claim his first fortune. In fact, at birth, Mitt Romney was already wealthier than many Americans will be in their lifetimes.

Mitt Romney is the beneficiary of intergenerational wealth, and intergenerational wealth bestows many benefits upon those fortunate enough to receive it. Those born into wealth have access to people, institutions and services that other Americans have to labor -- sometimes for generations -- to obtain.

Those with intergenerational wealth have difficulty relating to average Americans because they receive without worry, without sacrifice and without tears the things other individuals often die trying to provide for their families: a beautiful home, an excellent education and adequate healthcare.

Hard work can equal wealth, but the relationship between these two concepts cannot be expressed in the elementary school equation that Limbaugh, Romney, and other conservatives invoke. Conservatives delight in universalizing the concept of opportunity. They dole opportunity out liberally in "Chimerica," an unrealizable fabrication of an America that has never and will never exist. In Chimerica, hard work equals wealth, and conversely, poverty equals an absence of hard work. This is a tidy formula, but perhaps the most insidious myth of American political discourse.

Today, ascending from one social class to the next in America resembles scaling a sheer cliff. Most Americans are born on the wall and spend their lives clinging tirelessly to it. Sometimes moving up, sometimes moving laterally, and sometimes falling off, they use ingenuity and every means at their disposal to advance to the top of the cliff, or in some cases, to simply hang on. The poorest Americans possess only a few feet of rope and determination. Those in the middle have it slightly easier. They have access to an assortment of ladders -- shaky wooden ones, extending aluminum ones, and sturdy steel ones. Those even more privileged can choose from a variety of staircases, or if they choose, use ladders or ropes for the "thrill of it." Then there are those like Mitt Romney. Born at the top of the cliff, they can keep climbing if they choose, but it is not an imperative. For the others clinging to the wall, climbing is not a choice; it is a matter of survival.

David Brooks pens an eloquent defense of Romney's white collar fortune building. Brooks asks, "Is Romney a spoiled, cosseted character? Has he been corrupted by ease and luxury? The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder." However, Brooks clearly has a decidedly white collar understanding of what it means to be a "worker and a grinder." Sitting through a two-hour long meeting in a well-pressed shirt and tie can be uncomfortable, even tedious, but it is far from grinding. Scaling a four-story boiler in a HazMat suit while trying not to inhale hydrogen sulphide gas on a scorching July afternoon is grinding.

It is not Romney's wealth that makes him unable to relate. It is his incapacity to acknowledge the privileged position from which he began. It is admirable that he worked his way up from being an "entry level" consultant to an executive in the Boston Consulting Group. Unfortunately, this achievement will not resonate with the real grinders who build, fuel, and deliver America. For them, being a consultant is as foreign an experience as choosing a car elevator for a new house in La Jolla.

If the question about being too rich to relate is asked again (and it will be), Romney should answer this way: "I understand why people might feel that way about me. Most Americans do not have parents who are governors or corporate executives. I was born in a very fortunate financial situation. But the more important, and more American, story is how my family labored for generations to provide me with the opportunities that have blessed my life. As president, I want to bring opportunity to a new generation of Americans, so they will feel empowered to pursue the dreams they have for their families and for their communities.