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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.