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Why Romney's success reads as out-of-touch

By Ilyse Hogue, Special to CNN
updated 6:04 PM EDT, Tue May 1, 2012
Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney talk to members of his staff aboard his campaign plane in March.
Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney talk to members of his staff aboard his campaign plane in March.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ilyse Hogue: Mitt Romney says he's attacked for being successful. Not so, she says
  • She says Americans do celebrate others' success, but don't need to be taunted with it
  • She says Romney's gaffes -- and tax policy -- show candidate who doesn't "get" poor people
  • Hogue: Many rich men have been president, but while privileged, behaved responsibly

Editor's note: Ilyse Hogue is the former director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org. She has been a senior strategist to a number of Democratic and progressive groups, including Media Matters for America, Public Campaign and Rebuild the Dream. She is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.

(CNN) -- Every time I hear Mitt Romney protest that he's being attacked for his success, my head goes to that Pantene shampoo commercial from the early '80s where the actress opens with, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." Even as a kid, I remember being confused by this opening line when everything I saw around me celebrated beauty like hers.

No one hated that woman for being beautiful, although in retrospect maybe we should have harbored some animosity for the shoulder pads and big hair that passed as fashion at the time. And just as Americans celebrate beauty, we also celebrate success, despite Mitt's protestations. We're a hopelessly optimistic bunch, and we love nothing more than to project ourselves into the rags to riches narratives that pervade our media, our business world, and our politics.

So let me just address this to Mitt directly: Mitt, can we get this straight once and for all? With the exception of the people who watched their jobs fly overseas and their communities decimated when you shut down their factories to make a profit for your private equity firm, Bain Capital, no one hates you for your "success."

Ilyse Hogue
Ilyse Hogue

But taunting voters with your self-serving tax plan and your taste for expensive vehicles may not be the best way to instill confidence that you'll help people have the chance at their own success someday. In fact, your single-minded insistence that this is at the root of any concern with your candidacy only reinforces the discomfort of many voters envisioning you in the White House.

Indeed, as May Day protests once again call out growing economic inequality in our country, it's hard to imagine these cries falling on more deaf ears than Mitt Romney's.

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The problem is Mitt's tendency to remind us at every turn that he spent some of that wealth on blinders that shield him from the facts of life as most Americans know them. Nowhere was this more apparent than the speech last week at Otterbein University in Ohio. As parents and kids huddle together around kitchen tables to consider whether college is even a possibility and Ohio continues to lead the nation in job losses, Mitt's suggestion to the crowd of students was if they want to buy a business, they should borrow money from their (tapped-out) parents.

From the $10,000 wager in the middle of a political debate to his insistence that $374,000 for speaker's fee is "not very much," he continually demonstrates a fiscal consciousness orders of magnitude off from the average voter. The cumulative impact of these statements is not envy but flat-out astonishment that a presidential candidate could have so little knowledge of the typical economic conditions in our country. It almost feels like if Mitt Romney were to become president, he might have to spend the first couple years in language immersion classes in order to accurately grasp the situation on the ground.

And no one is in a waiting mood. A recent report from the Fed shows some economic improvement but not by the rate we hoped and unemployment declining but not by much. Every time Mitt unmasks his inner privilege by ribbing guys at a NASCAR rally about their Walmart rain ponchos -- "I like those fancy raincoats," Mitt said to a group of men outside in the downpour, "Really sprung for the big bucks!" -- he reinforces a growing unease that if this guy can't see the same picture as the rest of us, he can't possibly change it.

Against, this backdrop, Romney's tax plan could sink his candidacy. His most recent plan would cut his own taxes by a projected $4 million while raising taxes on the poorest Americans through a repeal of the earned income tax credit. Tough sell when he's worth $250 million and over half of American workers try to get by on less than $27,000 a year. Voters want to believe that success is within their reach, but equal opportunity is a key part of that equation. Ninety-seven percent of Americans think that everyone in our country should have equal opportunity to get ahead.

So when Romney says he is "not concerned about the very poor" while charging them to lower his own taxes, the problem is not that he has a lot of money, but that he's going to make sure other people people can't. Only one president got away with a similarly distorted tax plan, because he was uniquely able to speak the language of the average Americans. His name was George W. Bush and most folks aren't keen for a repeat, even if Romney could wrap it in the folksy tone of his Republican predecessor.

American presidents have almost always come from wealth, although no doubt Mitt Romney would rank up there at the top end of the spectrum. But our most revered leaders never lost sight of their own privilege and the responsibility that comes along with that. Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals. We know now that it is bad economics."

The Pantene girl knew that in the end we didn't hate her because she was beautiful -- otherwise, she wouldn't have sold any shampoo. The more Romney believes his problem is his success, the slimmer his chances of convincing Americans he might be the one for the job.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ilyse Hogue.

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