The Rolls-Royce of populists

WASHINGTON — Meet Willard Mitt Romney, champion of the common man.

“Do you realize over the last four years the median income in America has dropped every single year?” the candidate asked his supporters during a stop in Springfield, Va., last week. “At the same time,” he added, “food prices are up; electric prices are up; gasoline prices have doubled. These are tough times for the American people.”

But these are not tough times for a lot of Romney boosters, judging by the look of things.

Romney made this stand for the little guy in the heart of Fairfax County, which has the second-highest median household income in the nation (neighboring Loudoun is No. 1). Seemingly everyone in the 200-person crowd was fingering a smartphone, with the exception of the guy in the polo shirt in the second row reading The Wall Street Journal, and the guy in the eighth row in a linen blazer checking the Drudge Report on his iPad.

To get a better sense of the economic status of the invitation-only crowd, I strolled the parking lot — and found a fleet of BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and Cadillac SUVs, and sports cars bearing the Jaguar, Audi, Lexus and BMW labels. Parked near the entrance: a black Rolls-Royce Silver Spur III with vanity plates saying “MY ROLLS” — and a Romney bumper sticker.

When it comes to speaking up for the downtrodden, Romney isn’t just another man of the people. He is the Rolls-Royce of populists.

With evidence building that his prospects have been hurt by his dismissal of nearly half the country as moochers, Romney has been making it his job to worry about the 47 percent of Americans he said it wasn’t his job to worry about.

But when such an appeal is attempted by a man who has painstakingly crafted for himself a public image combining Scrooge McDuck and Thurston Howell, there is bound to be a certain amount of awkwardness and inconsistency.

Consider, for example, his new ads showing him speaking in front of a sooty group of coal miners, as various miners in their Appalachian accents criticize Obama’s coal policy. But the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reported that the miners who appeared behind Romney in the ad had had their shifts canceled early — and they weren’t paid for the lost time while they stood on the stage behind Romney.

There was also his unexpected response when NBC’s Ron Allen asked him about his difficulty connecting with middle-class Americans. “One hundred percent of the kids in our state had health insurance,” Romney boasted. “I don’t think there’s anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record.” But the next morning, he took the stage in Springfield and announced: “I got to get rid of Obamacare” — the nationwide program based on his own empathetic program in Massachusetts.

And, there was this I-feel-your-pain moment: “I’ve been across this country; my heart aches for the people I’ve seen,” he proclaimed in a high-school gymnasium. Inconveniently, a 1985 video surfaced the next day in which Romney explained that Bain Capital’s goal with the companies it invested in was “to harvest them at a significant profit” — as if they were organs being removed from an accident victim.

Why the Baron of Bain would be making a late appeal to the downtrodden is obvious. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that American regarded Romney’s “47 percent” remarks negatively, 54 percent to 32 percent.

But the outreach to the 47 percent he privately regarded as parasites furthers the impression that Romney is inauthentic — an impression encouraged by the candidate’s contrived delivery. In Springfield, Romney at one point recited a verse from “America the Beautiful” (though he has stopped singing the tune) and later in the speech held his left arm aloft, pretending to be the Statue of Liberty lifting her lantern.

The speech was at an American Legion hall to a group of veterans, so Romney, who didn’t mention veterans in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, built up the part of his usual stump speech where he promises to increase Pentagon spending (while also cutting taxes and the deficit). He thanked the “heroes” in the hall — and then hung around backstage, leaving the “heroes” waiting 20 minutes or more because the Secret Service wouldn’t let them leave until Romney was gone.

Romney, champion of the little guy, then took his motorcade to downtown Washington for a $50,000-a-plate fundraising dinner.

Even a man of the people needs to eat.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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