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Will Americans Forgive Mitt for Being Rich?

The debate about who is the real jobs outsourcer — Mitt Romney or Barack Obama — may be turning against the Republican with the publication of a Boston Globe report alleging he didn’t really leave Bain Capital in 1999 as he has said. If true, that might allow Democrats to pin responsibility on Romney for actions the company took after his departure. More to the point, this story along with a far murkier attempt to claim that there was something fishy about his personal investments and tax returns published in Vanity Fair makes it clear that liberals are determined to put Romney on trial for the crime of being wealthy, even if there are no credible allegations that he has ever broken any laws or behaved in an unethical manner.

This ought to be enough to persuade Romney that if he wants to win in November he’s going to have to do more than merely point out that the president has run the economy into a ditch without any plan for extricating it. Rather than run away from the charge of being a rich man, perhaps it’s time for him to start focusing his campaign on a defense of economic freedom and capitalism. This will enable Romney to provide a positive context for the smears about his record that isn’t coming across in the media. If the progress of the questionable outsourcing story line has shown, playing it safe and merely critiquing Obama’s failures is not going to be enough to put him over the top in a media environment in which the deck is always going to be stacked against him.

While Democrats may think they’ve finally gotten Romney by digging up the fact that he was still listed on tax filings as the owner of Bain after he left, there is no real dispute that when he departed the firm to run the 2002 Winter Olympics he ceased to play a role in its activities or decisions. The Obama campaign ads claiming Romney was a “pioneer” in outsourcing are obviously false. In response, the Republicans have counter-punched with generally accurate charges that show how the president’s trillion-dollar stimulus package helped fund “green” companies that actually shipped jobs overseas. The mainstream media has largely resisted taking up this story, but Romney’s real problem is not the outsourcing charge so much as it is the Democrats’ successful attempt to brand him as an out-of-touch plutocrat.

The Vanity Fair feature by leftist author Nicholas Shaxson is part and parcel of this same effort to cast aspersions on Romney’s wealth. Read it through, and you won’t find one single firm allegation that points to illegality or a genuine ethical transgression. The best he can do is to claim Romney invested some of his money abroad, and that due to the technical difficulties of assessing the value of many of his assets, we don’t know exactly how much he is worth. Of course, Romney probably doesn’t know either, but the point of all of Shaxson’s talk about “grey areas,” tax shelters and off-shore accounts is not so much to prove anything about the Republican candidate as it is to paint a picture of the complicated accounting that an investment portfolio of that size requires so as to make Americans suspicious.

Shaxson also throws around the names of the late English newspaper tycoon and scammer Robert Maxwell who invested in one of the early Bain funds back in the 1980s before the collapse of his empire. There’s no wrongdoing here, but it does allow the author to play a little guilt by association with Romney. As for how Romney amassed his wealth, Vanity Fair allows Shaxson to treat the failures of some of the companies Bain invested in as typical of a tactic he says was designed to destroy the firms without providing any of the far more numerous examples of those who prospered under its guidance.

The result is a thin tissue of innuendo spread over a few thousand words that provides little light about Romney’s financial life but speaks volumes about the desire of the left to smear him even though there is very little material for mud slinging in his life.

Yet rather than sit back and let Democrats and their allies in the media define him as a shadowy creature of a sinister Wall Street, this might be a good time for Romney to go on the offensive and start speaking more in defense of free market economics. Stuck with a sagging economy, bad news about employment and bereft of any ideas about what to do about any of this other than spend more money the Treasury doesn’t have, the Democrats might be in a tough spot. But they just may get away with it by putting Mitt Romney on trial for the crime of being wealthy. The question now is whether the Republican is so worried about the focus on his money that he’ll allow himself to be spooked into merely playing defense on the issue. In spite of the way Democrats have exploited the politics of jealousy and resentment, America remains an aspirational society. Instead of fleeing from the charge of being wealthy, Romney needs to emphasize that his success shows the genius of American capitalism and why it must be defended against the party of big government. The public will forgive Romney for being rich but not for ignoring the issue.