Occupy Wall Street did an amazing job of getting America to start talking about economic inequality, and about the way the game is rigged for the rich and big corporations -- but after that first moment, when the movement still had everyone's attention, its members made a conscious decision not to get specific about positions and goals and critiques. I think a real opportunity was lost.
But now I feel that the Mitt Romney campaign has the potential to start a discussion about the specific ways the rich get richer, a discussion that will be heard even in the heartland, and even by low-information voters -- the very discussion Occupy didn't quite initiate.
Romney's doing this by being embarrassed about his wealth, and by releasing information about his financial situation in ways that draw attention to just what he's embarrassed about. He won't release his tax returns, then he says he will eventually, and meanwhile he blurts out that his tax rate is 15 percent, far less than the rate paid by many middle-class people. And now his reluctance to be more forthcoming, combined with what we know about his financial circumstances, leads a lot of people to speculate that he's offshoring his wealth. And on and on.
He's drawing attention to what the 1% can do with their money and the 99% can't. He's getting us down to cases on this.
And his shame is what's shining a light on this -- really, all he had to do was schedule the document dump for 5:30 on a Friday before a holiday weekend and only a few green-eyeshade journalists and bloggers would have really focused on what his disclosure revealed. Oh, sure, there'd be nuggets for opposition researchers to mine, but there wouldn't be this sense of shame. He could brazen his way through most attacks.
And now even his ideological soul mates are drawing attention to his shame. Chris Christie, who's endorsed him, says he should make his tax returns public. David Brooks is drawing attention to the shame by taking the opposite tack: he's being incredibly defensive on the candidate's behalf.
Some excerpts from Mr. Brooks' side in his new back and forth on the matter with Gail Collins:
David: ... Why do we make candidates release their tax forms? Has there ever been a case where a presidential decision has been influenced by some bit of information that might appear on a tax form? I doubt it. Has information on a tax form ever influenced anybody’s vote? Never heard of such a case....I actually think Brooks has a point at the beginning of this -- I can't think of a financial disclosure that actually affected the outcome of an election. We're just not a class-conscious society.
David: My own view is that the desire for full disclosure stems from a few things. First, pure prurience. Second, members of what used to be called the New Class perpetually labor under the delusion that other people dislike the rich as much as they do and if they can only disclose that someone is rich that will end their political chances. Third, there is a misbegotten ideology haunting the land, the ideology of sunshinism. This is the belief that everything should be made public....
David: It also destroys people’s faith in government. Have you noticed that as democracy has become more open, cynicism has skyrocketed and the effectiveness of government has gone down the toilet? Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has the best observation on this — that parts of government should be hidden for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothes.
Indeed, because those millions in Super-PAC bucks are just so open and transparent.
But that's precisely the reason why Romney shouldn't be so ashamed -- and that's why his shame has the potential to make Americans focus on the way rich people operate in this society in a way no other financial disclosure has. Mitt may be making us class-conscious, at last. Maybe we ought to thank him.