Political Hay

Romney and Democrats’ Own Past

The modern Democratic presidency is a creation of very wealthy men. So what makes Romney wealth unacceptable?

By 9.25.12

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Since when have Democrats had a problem with wealthy presidential candidates? Democrats' two most revered presidents, FDR and Kennedy, were extraordinarily wealthy. Interestingly, the contrast between Democrats' past history and their current attacks on Romney is never acknowledged -- either by Democrats or the media. 

The Obama campaign has used Romney's wealth to caricature him. To hear them tell it, he was born Richie Rich and became Gordon Gecko. Of course, such a sketch serves many purposes -- from the politics of division to the economics of redistribution. The problem is it neither fits Romney nor Democrats' own self-cherished past.

Despite the recent resurrection of Bill Clinton -- really a factor of limited choices (it's either Clinton or Carter), the modern Democratic party rests on the twin pillars of Roosevelt and Kennedy. And those pillars' political careers rested on great wealth.

FDR built today's Democratic Party, and along with it the modern all-encompassing presidency. Democrats idolize both. 

Roosevelt was not exactly born in a log cabin. Rather, FDR was born to wealth and privilege unimaginable to most Americans of his day or today's. He is possibly America's wealthiest president. Yet this did not hurt his political ascent, even during the depths of the Depression.

Obama in his acceptance speech even mentioned FDR ("the kind of bold experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one"), in order to tie the current economy to the Depression and himself to FDR. Yet while his campaign uses today's economy to discredit Romney and his wealth, there is not a peep about the party's plutocratic patriarch. 

Did the urgency of the Depression absolve FDR, but today's does not Romney? Perhaps the world of 80 years ago was different. Then how about that of 50 years ago?

If FDR is the substance of Democrats' presidential ideal, Kennedy is its symbol. An author, truly gifted orator (pre-teleprompter), handsome, young, and a war hero, he embodied the spirit of his age. He looked like how America wanted to appear, and as the Democratic Party still sees itself. 

Alas for Obama's campaign, Kennedy too had a very privileged upbringing, due to the wealth of his investor father (sound familiar?). Yet this didn't bother Democrats of his day, and apparently not those of today either. 

Neither of these two Democrat icons had a hand in creating the wealth they enjoyed. Far from being self-made men, they were homemade. Contrastingly, Romney's wealth is largely of his own creation. Assuredly, he did not start from scratch, but "the scratch" he has, he earned. 

This personal private sector success, which separates Romney from FDR and Kennedy, would seemingly meet with greater approval from those so suddenly suspicious of wealth. At least that is the Horatio Alger way we used to see it. People came to America to get rich. Wealth and success were Americans' goals, not their millstones.

Yet today, Romney's personal success -- the only thing separating his wealth from FDR's and Kennedy's -- stokes liberal opprobrium all the more.

The reason is simple: the men and women who succeed on their own are not dependent on government. And if they do not need government, they do not need liberals who promote it.

Liberals see the successful as an implicit rebuke of their vision. So they create a counterfactual tale of the successful: that their success has come with the assistance of the rest of us, if not at our expense. It is liberals' view that government is needed to generate widespread success and correct the imbalance that the successful create. 

It is Romney's personal success, not his wealth that antagonizes liberals so. And it is the liberal control that separates today's Democratic Party from that of FDR and Kennedy. Romney actually has greater resonance to Democrats' past than today's liberals do.  

 

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.