If you haven't heard of the Buffett Rule, you will. It's already emerging as one of the key themes of the presidential race, and if it isn't already known as the Romney Rule, it will be soon.
Conventional wisdom has always held that running class warfare against the rich doesn't work because middle-class Americans actually like (and aspire to be) rich people, and that the worst thing a presidential candidate could do is promise to raise taxes.
In 1984, Vice President Mondale said that whoever the next president was would raise taxes. "He won't tell you. I just did." Great line. Great theater. Disastrous politics.
But that was then. Ronald Reagan never seemed like a rich guy, even though his friends were. The economy was in full-blown recovery. People still believed you could cut taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget — even though the deficit was already ballooning.
This is now. The rich have gotten richer, and they pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes than middle-class voters. I'm not exactly sure how they do it, but billionaire Warren Buffett pays a lower percentage than his secretary. And Mitt Romney pays a lower percentage than my secretary.
If that isn't a political issue looking Barack Obama in the face, what is?
Romney, it seems, just can't help himself. A microphone is a microphone. There is no such thing as a "dead" mic. Mics lead to tapes; tapes lead to leaks; leaks lead to Gawker, and other sites. And so it was that on the same day that the president was hammering hard on the Buffett Rule and the unfairness of the rich paying less, Gawker featured a video clip of Romney discussing the horses he owns: "She (his wife, Ann) has Austrian Warmbloods" (plural?). (Ann rides to help with her MS.) "Me (Romney), I have a Missouri Fox Trotter."
Most of us don't own a horse, much less horses. We don't have offshore accounts. We actually earn our income from working, so we pay more in taxes than folks like Romney.
The Buffett Rule isn't just about tax rates. It's about whether you're on the side of the people who own the sports teams and the NASCAR fleets and the rest, or the ones who spring for a ticket in the stands, the side of the people who own the horses, or the ones who'd be happy to get a job cleaning the stables. It's about whose side you're on and whether you understand the problems of "people like us" — or whether you even know any.
There is nothing more phony-baloney than hearing an awkward Romney "reciting" in his transparently scripted way the stories his aides have carefully taken down of the "real people" he's met on the campaign trail. "And I met Bob," he says woodenly, and you know he couldn't pick Bob out of a lineup, doesn't invite folks like Bob to dinner when he goes home and probably doesn't have any relatives in Bob's sinking ship. (If he does, we haven't seen them.)
One of the reasons Rick Santorum got so far is because, putting ideology aside, he seemed "realer" than Romney. I'm told — by reporters who have covered both for years — that Romney is actually a very nice guy and Santorum isn't, but that isn't really the issue for voters. Nice is nice. But what most people want in a president is someone who understands their problems and will do something about them, or at least try.
There's more resentment of the rich out there than I've seen in my years in politics, and there rarely has been a candidate who is as Wall Street as Romney. It's a tricky combination, particularly coming from a Republican Party that has largely abandoned its Wall Street moderation for Main Street conservatism.
Romney needs to find his base and secure it, and then he needs the support of all the folks who don't have a clue what a Missouri Fox Trotter is and don't really care.
Can he understand us if we can't understand him? Not an easy question for a guy who chitchats about the horses he owns. Plural.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.