Steve Benen, a contributor at Washington Monthly, noted online on Jan. 18 that by normal standards, Mitt Romney is a terrible candidate — but just not as bad as his rivals. Mr. Benen adds: “I often wonder what the race for the Republican nomination would look like this year if Romney had just one credible opponent.”
But that wasn’t going to happen!
The weakness of the G.O.P. field is not an accident.
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I view the primary race through the lens of the F.O.F. theory — that’s for “fools or frauds.” It goes as follows: to be a good Republican right now, you have to affirm your belief in things that any halfway intelligent politician can see are plainly false. This leaves room for only two kinds of candidates: those who just aren’t smart and/or rational enough to understand the problem, and those who are completely cynical, willing to say anything to get ahead.
What sort of things am I talking about? They range from the belief that President Obama is a socialist who will destroy America with his dastardly Heritage Foundation-devised health care plan, to the belief that unemployment is high because lazy people prefer their unemployment insurance checks. On budget matters, you have to claim to believe that we can cut taxes sharply, maintain high military spending and eliminate the deficit — all without upsetting those Republican-voting Medicare recipients.
Notice that in the end, when it came to budget claims, even the supposedly hard-headed types — (cough) Paul Ryan (cough) — ended up relying on gigantic magic asterisks. (As I noted last April, Mr. Ryan called for $3 trillion in tax cuts, but insisted that his plan would be revenue-neutral because something unspecified would broaden the tax base.)
So what you have are fairly dim types like Rick Perry on the one side, and the utterly cynical Mr. Romney on the other. (Newt Gingrich manages to be both a fool and a fraud). Maybe, just maybe, the G.O.P. could have found someone able to achieve Romney-level cynicism while coming across as sincere; but political talent on that level is quite rare. I mean, the various non-crazy non-Romneys who were supposed to have a shot all turned out to be duds, e.g. Tim Pawlenty.
The weakness of the G.O.P. field is, in short, structural. Without the still-terrible economy, they wouldn’t have a chance.
Just about what we expected: In 2010, Mr. Romney’s adjusted gross income was $21.6 million, of which he paid about $3 million in taxes (with a federal income tax rate of 13.9 percent.)
He really needs to provide earlier years, if only to clear up suspicions that he began sanitizing his portfolio in preparation for his presidential run.
The right-wing apologetics now focus on the claim that Mr. Romney’s taxes aren’t really low, because we should impute the taxes that corporations effectively paid on his behalf. But there are at least two things wrong with this argument.
First, $13 million of the total was carried interest, which gets taxed like capital gains but is really just commissions that receive special treatment for no good reason. No profits taxes were paid on that income; right there, a minimally defensible tax code would have levied $2.6 million more in taxes on Mr. Romney.
Second, just the other day the usual suspects were calling for big cuts in corporate taxes, arguing that these taxes don’t really fall on stockholders; they fall mainly on workers and consumers. Now, suddenly, the taxes fall on stockholders after all. Interesting.
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign is signaling that it’s going to try to spin this as “He pays lots of taxes!” How stupid do they think we are? Actually, don’t answer that.
Again, the point here is not that Mr. Romney did something wrong by paying the low rates current tax law lavishes on people like him. It is, instead, that in an election campaign that will be in part about issues of inequality, the likely G.O.P. candidate is a living, breathing, coupon-clipping example of how favorable our system is to the very rich; and he also happens to be advocating policies that would greatly benefit people like him, while hurting the poor and the middle class.
P.S.: Yes, my tax rate is a lot higher than Mr. Romney’s. And I support policies that would raise it further.
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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.
Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).
Copyright 2012 The New York Times.