What better person than the French-speaking Mitt Romney to lay bare the pure beating heart of noblesse oblige.
Sunday morning's NBC debate in Concord, N.H. was a vast improvement over the ABC one the night before -- it occurred to the non-Romney candidates that they might want to train their fire on the man who's up 20 points in the New Hampshire polls. Their focus trailed off as the debate progressed, but Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich did manage to produce a revealing exchange at the outset regarding Romney's motivations to enter politics. They challenged Romney's oft-repeated claim that he, unlike they, was no career politician but rather a man who saw running for office as the duty of a good citizen who, when his work is complete, returns like Cincinnatus to his plow, or to his carried-interest loophole for private equity investment managers, as the case may be. In the best zinger of the debate, Gingrich chalked this up as a bunch of "pious baloney." But it is these lines of Romney that should get the attention. From Ben Smith's writeup:
Mitt Romney suggested in today's debate that only rich people should run for office, and then quickly celebrated the fact that he'd forced a rival to take out a loan against his house. Romney said his father, Michigan Governor George Romney, had told him, "Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage."
"If you find yourself in a position when you can serve, why you ought to have a responsibility to do so if you think you can make a difference," he recalled his father telling him. "Also, don't get in politics if your kids are still young because it might turn their heads."
A few seconds later, he bragged about his run against Teddy Kennedy. "I was happy he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me," he said.
The exchange with Newt Gingrich brought out Romney at his most tone-deaf, and echoed his offer of a $10,000 bet to Rick Perry in an earlier debate. Romney's rivals are already looking for ways to turn his wealth -- and his tone-deaf treatment of it -- into a liability. The Obama campaign regularly blasts him as out-of-touch with the lives of American workers.
So: the person running on the vision of a "merit" and "opportunity" society opposed to Barack Obama's "entitlement" society believes that politicians should be independently wealthy, not peons who have to rely on the paltry earnings of a U.S. senator or governor. It's worth noting that this is hardly the first time that Romney has depicted his move into politics in 1994 in this light. In his 2007 piece about Romney's relationship with his father, who after running American Motors became governor of Michigan and ran for president in 1968, Jonathan Cohn wrote: "George Romney had always said the ideal time to run for public office was after you had achieved financial independence and your children were old enough to put up with the loss of privacy." So Mitt today was just echoing the advice of the father he revered. But of all the aspects of George Romney that are to be admired -- including many lacking in his son -- this brand of noblesse oblige wasn't one of them. Once again, I'm simply amazed that the Republican Party, at a time of heightened consciousness about the privileges of the very wealthy, is on the verge of nominating a quarter-billionaire who, when presented with the notion of running for president, says: thanks, much obliged.