By Mark Gabrish Conlan
October 5, 2012 (San Diego)--Just about everybody who follows American politics at all has heard by now of the surreptitious video recording made of Mitt Romney and his peers at a $50,000 per person fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida last May 17. In case you need the reminder, it’s the event at which he said, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent on the government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That’s an entitlement. … These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of lower taxes doesn’t connect. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center … ”
The world first learned about this event exactly four months after it happened, when the progressive magazine Mother Jones posted excerpts from the video on their Web site, http://www.motherjones.com/. Originally, Mother Jones just posted excerpts from the tape, but when Romney’s campaign criticized them and suggested they were taking the candidate’s remark out of context — an ironic critique given that virtually the entire Republican convention’s message was centered around “You didn’t build that,” a quote from an Obama speech they had taken out of context — Mother Jones put up not only the complete video but a full transcript.
The transcript, if anything, is even more damning than the oft-quoted excerpt. In a campaign where even one of his top staff members has compared Mitt Romney to an Etch-a-Sketch toy, it’s probably as close as we’re going to get to the “real” Mitt: a self-centered egomaniac who, as New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik put it, “believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.”
What’s more, it’s one of the rare times that a document has leaked from the gated preserves of America’s capitalist elite — what the Occupy people call “the 1 percent” (though in the case of Romney and probably most of the people who attended the Boca Raton event it may be more like the 0.01 percent) — to show the rest of America what the ultra-rich really think of us. The most incredible thing about the full document is not only what Romney says but the amen chorus he gets from his audience in what for him is a laid-back hang-out session among his peers. What Romney’s audience said in Boca Raton is as important as what Romney himself said — and so is who they are. While no list of attendees is available, Mother Jones tried to figure out who was at the Boca Raton event by going through the Romney campaign’s disclosure forms and finding out which Florida-based contributors gave $50,000 to the Romney Victory PAC between May 1 and May 17, when the event took place.
Of the 31 donors listed in a document available, like the meeting transcript itself, on the Mother Jones web site, at least eight come from companies with the words “Capital” or “Partners” in their names — words that suggest these businesses are hedge funds like the one Romney used to run, Bain Capital. Others have company names like “Galaxe Solutions,” “Foresight Management,” “Concorde Companies,” “Strategic Industries” and “Dragon Global Management” that could also be hedge funds — or just about anything. The few contributors identified with employers whose names actually connote something about the business they’re engaged in are mostly either in real estate or health care, though there are two executives from Fort Lauderdale-based Paisano Publications, which produces magazines about motorcycles and tattoos.
The point is that the Boca Raton event featured Romney talking to his peers — and being prompted in some of his most outrageous statements by questions from the audience. The infamous comments about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax, expect government to take care of them, will never be convinced “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” and will therefore vote for Obama were actually prompted by an audience member who told Romney, “Why don’t you stick up for yourself? To me, you should be proud of your wealth. That’s what we all aspire to be. We kill ourselves, we don’t work a nine to five. We’re away from our families five days a week. … Why not stick up for yourself and say, ‘Why is it bad to be, to aspire to be, wealthy and successful?’”
Romney’s initial response was to tell the questioner that, “in every stump speech I give, I speak about the fact that people who dream and achieve enormous success do not make us poorer — they make us better off. … [T]he thing which I find most disappointing in this president is his attack of one American against another American, the division of America based on going after those who have been successful.” He then complained that the media don’t report it when he says things like that, but that he’ll have the opportunity in the upcoming televised debates to take that point directly to the American people without media intermediaries. Then an audience member asked, “For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?”
The entire transcript is full of similarly patronizing exchanges between Romney and his audience. Early on he mentions that his father, George Romney, had been born in Mexico, and he adds, “Had he been born of Mexican parents I’d have a better shot at winning this.” Then an audience member says, “Pull an Elizabeth Warren!” — referring to the Harvard Law School professor and Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts who was damned by Republicans for having claimed on her faculty records that she was part-Native American. As it turned out, she is part-Native American — according to Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of her in the September 17 New Yorker it was a long-time family secret that her parents had had to elope because her dad’s family didn’t approve of him marrying a woman who was part-Cherokee and part-Delaware — and she never claimed any affirmative-action advantage from it. But Republicans in Massachusetts and nationwide were attacking her about it, and Romney’s questioner was echoing their attack line.
Later on in the transcript Romney is talking about how his wife’s grandfather was a Welsh coal miner who emigrated to the U.S., became an auto worker and saved enough money to pay for his children to join him. “[T]hey got together as a family and said, you know, to be successful in America, you’ve got to get an education,” Romney recalled. “And they couldn’t afford an education. And the kids and the parents said, you know, if we all work, and we all save, we could afford to send one of us to college. And they, they sent my wife’s dad. Can you imagine working every day, taking a couple of jobs, saving your money so that your brother could go to — I mean, I would never do that for my brother.” In other words, after spinning a scenario about his wife’s family that sounds like the script for It’s a Wonderful Life, Mitt told his self-satisfied audience that he, unlike his father-in-law, would not have been his brother’s keeper.
Right after that, Romney said that he and his wife had given away all the money they inherited from their parents (really?) and added, “I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America. I’ll tell ya, there is — 95 percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country.” He then told a story of visiting a factory in China that he was considering buying for Bain Capital and finding that the workers were paid a “pittance,” that they lived on site in tiny dorm rooms, 12 to a room, with one bathroom per 10 rooms, “and around this factory was a fence, a huge fence with barbed wire, and guard towers. And we said, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe that you, you know, you keep these girls in.’ They said, ‘No, no, no — this is to keep other people from coming in. Because people want so badly to come work in this factory that we have to keep them out, or they’ll just come in here and start working and try and get compensated.’”
One would think that anyone with any moral sense at all would hear a story like that and think that, if it’s true, it would be a moral imperative to raise the overall standard of living in China so its workers would have more attractive alternatives than sweatshop jobs making small appliances for U.S. consumers. Not Romney. Instead he used it as an intro for a snide comment about immigration policy: “I’d like to staple a green card to every Ph.D. in the world and say, ‘Come to America, we want you here.’ Instead, we make it hard for people who get educated here or elsewhere to make this their home. Unless, of course, you have no skill or experience, in which case you’re welcome to cross the border and stay here for the rest of your life.”
Next up was an audience member who urged Romney to base his campaign on the argument that “if you vote to re-elect President Obama, you’re voting to bankrupt the United States.” Romney replied that he’d just met with John Whitehead, who used to be the head of the New York Federal Reserve and was also the head of Goldman Sachs (and you wonder why the government doesn’t effectively regulate the financial sector?), who had told him that “as soon as the Fed stops buying all the debt that we’re issuing … we’re going to have a failed Treasury [bond] auction … It’s just made-up money, and it doesn’t augur well for our economic future.” Then another audience member, identified in the transcript as “George,” asked Romney, “To what extent do people really understand that we’re hurtling towards a cliff?” Romney’s reply was, “They don’t. By and large the people don’t get it.”
Then, anticipating the language he’d use later about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax, Romney said, “[W]hat we have to get is that 5 or 10 percent in the middle who sometimes vote Republican, sometimes vote Democrat, and have them understand how important this is.” He closed this topic with a statement that “the total national debt and the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid … is $520,000 per household … at least 10, 12 times their income. Even though we’re not going to be writing the check for that amount per household, they’re going to be paying the interest on that.” Romney said that once he explains this to younger voters, they’re going to turn away from the Democrats en masse and say, “Holy cow! The only guys who are worried about the future of our country, and our future, are Republicans.” Then, in the lavishly appointed home of his host, hedge fund manager Marc Leder, he closed with a statement of upper-class cluelessness that rivals “Let ’em eat cake”: “[T]here won’t be any houses like this if we stay on the road we’re on.”
There are plenty of other items in the Romney at Boca Raton transcript that show the airy contempt both he and his fellow 1 percenters have for the rest of America. At one point Romney says that if he wins, the mere fact of his election will produce an economic recovery even before he takes office: “[T]here will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We’ll see capital come back, and we’ll see — without actually doing anything — we’ll actually get a boost in the economy.” Later on an audience member asks Romney to “clean house, immediately” at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and something called the “CFEC.” It’s hard to tell what those initials mean, but my guess would be the Central Florida Electric Cooperative, a non-profit public utility in operation since 1939. Romney’s response to his questioner’s demand for a housecleaning at these agencies? “I wish they weren’t unionized, so we could go a lot deeper than you’re usually allowed to go.”
Taken as a whole, Romney’s Boca Raton remarks are largely a compendium of Republican talking points: America is the greatest country in the world. Immigrants are bad — unless they have advanced degrees, in which case they’re good. Unions are bad because they get in the way of a man who likes to fire people. Entrepreneurs are good. Debt is bad. Affirmative action programs are bad. Social welfare programs are bad, and the people who benefit from them are lazy bums who don’t pay taxes and whom a true leader like Romney doesn’t have to worry about. Even his comments on foreign policy — notably the controversial one about how “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” — are stock Republican propaganda. But somehow in a roomful of people who, like Romney himself, are not only financially successful but believe that their financial success establishes their superiority to the common run of humanity and therefore their right to rule, the stock Republican talking points seem not just annoying but downright scary.
I would hope that more documents like the Boca Raton meeting would be the final straws that break the back of Americans’ love of unfettered capitalism. When Michael Moore called his most recent movie Capitalism: A Love Story, I’m not sure even he knew how right his title was. Americans love capitalism the way a battered wife loves her husband: it beats them, cheats them, steals from them, destroys their jobs, takes away their homes, drives down their income … and still they love it. Like the classic batterer, America’s capitalist class has convinced its victims — the 99 (or more) percent of Americans who don’t own the means of production, who’ve seen their factories closed and their jobs outsourced to China, who went to college because they were told it would ensure their futures and instead got huge student-loan debts and jobs at McDonald’s — that life without them would be even worse. One wonders what it will take to break this enthrallment and make America’s non-rich see the world as it is and realize that the people who are screwing them are those above them, not those below. The Occupy movement opened a chink in the capitalists’ ideological armor, but it quickly closed again. Maybe we need more documents like the Boca Raton transcript to show America’s masses what their masters really think of them.
The opinions in the column reflect the views of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.