It's an easy choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on tax

Compared to Romney, Obama is downright folksy.

President Barack Obama isn't a populist but he plays one on the campaign trail. Like many liberal Democrats, he plays up the down-home rhetoric for votes, but by nature he's a progressive technocrat immanently comfortable trusting the authority of experts. This comes from being the son of an anthropologist and former editor of the Harvard Law Review. This is why he sounded so wooden when attempting to rail against "fat cat bankers," and why he needs Vice President Joe Biden, a natural-born class warrior.

But the president's populist mien stems from more than campaign strategy. It's context, too. Compared to quarter-billionaire Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger in the 2012 presidential election, no-drama Obama appears downright folksy. Sure, working-class Americans don't usually feel kinship with a former constitutional law professor, but that's far better than a guy who owns a dressage champion competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics. It'd be one thing if Romney's horse was a racing steed. Americans understand betting on the ponies. But dressage? First, it sounds kinda French. Second, that means a dancing horse, right?

That's slightly unfair. But Romney isn't helping.

First, he's not being clear about his wealth. He has released only two years of tax returns. This has allowed the Obama campaign to suggest, rightly or wrongly, that he's hiding something. And in fairness, that's a plausible charge given that Romney has cash stashed in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, and the reason you do that is to avoid the prying eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.

Second, the central claim of his candidacy — that he is an experienced businessman who knows how to create jobs — took a major hit last month after a report in the Washington Post found that Bain Capital, Romney's former Wall Street firm, invested in companies that pioneered the trend of outsourcing jobs.

Romney's reaction was twofold and too dumb — he demanded that the newspaper retract the story (it said no) and he said the reporters didn't know the difference between outsourcing and offshoring. Frankly most people don't, and if you're trying to save face by splitting hairs, good luck to you. You're going to need it.

Third, he rebounds poorly. Parsing "outsourcing" and "offshoring" was just the beginning. Last week, the Associated Press revealed that Romney has investments in a company in Bermuda, raising more questions about transparency and indeed how wealthy Romney actually is. Estimates so far put his wealth at as much as $250m, making him the richest man to run for the White House in recent memory (Obama's wealth is as high as $3m).

And again, Romney stumbled badly: "I don’t manage [those investments], I don’t even know where they are," Romney told a radio station in Iowa, a battleground state. "That trustee follows all U.S. laws, all taxes are paid as appropriate, all of them have been reported to the government. There’s nothing hidden there."

This kind of explanation flies with people who have blind trusts, but not with people who don't have trusts or don't know what trusts are, and sure as hell don't know why they are blind. And anyway, Romney could dispel the ambiguity by releasing more returns just as his father, George, did before making a run for the presidency.

Now Obama is hitting hard: "What’s important is if you are running for president is that the American people know who you are and what you’ve done and that you’re an open book," he told a New Hampshire TV station. "And that’s been true of every presidential candidate dating all the way back to Mitt Romney’s father."

My guess is that Romney won't release more tax returns, because he doesn't want to bring more attention to himself. I say this not because I think he's hiding something (though he may be for all I know), but because Romney wants this election to be a referendum on the president's first term not a choice between him and Obama.

The reason for that is Americans tend to give incumbents the benefit of the doubt, but if Romney can raise enough doubt about the economy — and with a stalled economy on the brink of a double-dip recession, there's good reason for this strategy — he can frame the election as a thumbs-up-thumbs-down vote.

Obama, on the other hand, is doing his best to make this a choice between opposing candidate, parties and ideologies. Yesterday, we saw the latest stage of that strategy when he called for Congress to allow the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest two per cent of income earners to expire at the end of the year.

This is good politics for two reasons. One, most Americans approve of such a measure, partly because taxing the rich lowers the national debt and partly because taxing the rich just feels good. The second reason this is good politics: It puts Romney in a box. Obama highlighted the fact that he himself would be paying higher taxes and that he stood ready to do so. Romney, meanwhile, has said letting the tax cuts expire is bad for small business, which may be true. What's certain is that Obama is setting up a choice.

American voters can choose the rich guy willing to pay more in taxes for the good of his country or the rich guy who didn't.

That, to most Americans, is an easy choice.
 

Mitt Romney's tax affairs are being efficiently used against him by Obama. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.