The last thing Mitt Romney needs is a John Kerry moment that conjures up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the very rich: “They are different from you and me.”
But like an early Independence Day gift to Democrats, there it was: the image of a grinning Mitt and wife, Ann, enjoying a perfect summer day on a jet ski on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H., where the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee owns a lust-inducing lakefront vacation home. The photo of the contented pair skimming joyfully over the water is a natural bridge to the next, less-quoted, line from Fitzgerald’s 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy”: “They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”
Romney would say he was born comfortable, and not as rich as he became from investing in struggling companies, and making millions whether they lived or died. But, during a slow holiday news week, the photo was featured in newspapers and websites, including the Romney-friendly Drudge Report. It was quickly compared with a September 2004 shot of Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket, tacking back and forth in the gusty air. Back then, Republicans swiftly turned the footage of the Democratic presidential nominee, which was also taken by news crews, into a deadly campaign spot that hit on two levels. It showed a candidate in an elite setting, engaged in a sport not considered a touchstone for the common man or woman. It also reminded voters of Kerry’s propensity for shifting with political winds.
More average Americans may jet ski on Lake Winnipesaukee than wind surf off Nantucket.
Still, the Romney vacation picture gives Team Obama a visual to go along with its attacks on the candidate’s business record at Bain Capital. As reported by ABC’s “The Note,” the super PAC supporting Obama has already spent $10 million in Bain-related ads that have run in five major battleground states. Polling shows they are working, with Obama pulling ahead. The basic theme is that if Romney wins, the middle class loses. Vanity Fair picks up the anti-Bain theme in an upcoming article which, according to the magazine, “delves into the murky world of offshore finance, revealing loopholes that allow the very wealthy to skirt tax laws” and raises questions about the extent of Romney’s offshore investments.
From Team Obama’s perspective, the goal is to get average voters to question Romney’s ability to feel their pain and raise uncertainty about the true focus of a Romney administration. Will it be on people like them, or super-wealthy people like Romney?
There’s a substantial list of Romney primary season quotes that play to the theme of an out-of-touch rich guy whose renovation of a La Jolla beach house includes a two-level, four-car garage, car elevator included. He once tried to relate to unemployed Floridians by telling them, “I’m also unemployed.” He offered to make a $10,000 bet with Texas Governor Rick Perry. He also said he isn’t concerned about “the very poor” because “we have a safety net there.” The candidate has yet to explain how he will retain what’s left of an already-tattered safety net, given his zeal to simultaneously reduce the deficit and taxes on the rich.
Romney recently dismissed the suggestion that voters may perceive him as just another “successful rich guy,” as a Fox interviewer put it. As Romney rightly pointed out, Democrats like FDR and JFK were also rich. “This is not a nation that divides people based on whether they’ve been successful or not,” he added. “We don’t say, ‘Oh, boy, this person won the lottery and therefore they can’t understand me.’ ”
As the Romney jet-ski photo made the rounds, it was reported that Obama and his family would not be vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard this summer, as they have in the past. Obama’s reelection campaign fans classic themes of class warfare and pits the “have-nots” against the “haves.” Avoiding an island known for its embrace of wealthy, pampered liberal “haves” is an obvious political call.
In politics, visuals matter. And in presidential politics, perception matters even more.