This was supposed to be the year that an American presidential race finally turned on the consuming costs of war, schools, health care, and retirement, our stupefying and unfair tax system that fails to pay our bills, and how it all threatens American opportunity and living standards.
A lot of my readers expected
Mitt Romney, the most successful businessman (measured by dollars) to win a big party's nomination for the nation's highest office, to easily sell Americans on the idea that his record of buying, financing, and reselling companies gave him skills far beyond the restorative powers of President Obama, community organizer turned law prof.
It could still happen. But the polls say Romney hasn't closed the sale on himself as the CEO America needs. And the weak economy hasn't stopped Obama.
"Going into the election six months ago, one would think the economy would dominate" the campaign, Howard Schweitzer, managing partner of Philadelphia law firm Cozen O'Connor's Public Strategies group and a former George W. Bush appointee, said last week in a conference call for clients.
Instead, "while the economy was very significant in making this race much closer than in 2008, it is not, at the end of the game, as active an issue in moving the remaining voters," said fellow Cozen partner Mark L. Alderman, a member of the Democratic Party's national finance committee.
The consensus at the bipartisan Cozen group, whose members are highly paid to fight for corporate interests in Washington, is that Obama will be reelected and that Democrats and Republicans will keep enough seats to block one another in Congress, though they will likely compromise more on tax hikes and spending cuts.
"There is plenty of disappointment" in this year's campaign, said Philadelphia investment banker Andrew Greenberg, of Fairmount Partners. "Neither candidate has been specific or thoughtful" about how restructured (and, effectively, higher) taxes would be balanced with more efficient spending on health care and other fast-growing government programs.
Romney has a strong case that's not coming across, Greenberg said. Romney should be attacking Obama's General Motors bailout and the "flawed" view of a controlling government that it represents, not just trying
to avoid fallout from his heartfelt opposition.
Even Romney's former private-equity colleagues now worry that his diffident style has attracted unwelcome attention to their industry's low tax structure: "He has attracted a heck of a lot of unfriendly fire without being particularly good at returning it," Greenberg said. "It's so frustrating."
In the vacuum, the campaigns have turned out not to be so different from past years: There's little reward for taking tough positions, said James M. Meyer, chief investment officer at $1 billion-asset Tower Bridge Advisors, Conshohocken.
"Saying you are going to cut spending and close loopholes appeals to our good sense. But," Meyer told me, "once you start detailing the exact cuts to be made, or loopholes to be closed, you start making enemies."
Romney's fellow private-equity managers, oil companies, and other wealthy interests do have reason to worry that Congress may boost their low tax rates, though not radically. But curbs on the much bigger home-mortgage and charity deductions would provoke a "mass of lobbyists and other interested parties marching through Congress [to] create the biggest human traffic jam in Washington's history," so they aren't being discussed, Meyer wrote last week in a note to clients of brokerage Boenning & Scattergood.
It's as if the politicians still hope the economy will grow back before they have to do much.
John F. Meck
, a partner at Pittsburgh-based
Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott
- who helps rich people save on taxes by, for example, passing millions to accounts in their grandchildren's names (a strategy Romney also has used) - said estate-planning pros were urging clients to set up more such "dynasty trusts," on the chance that the new Congress gets more serious about cutting the deficit.
Some are blase about that risk, Meck said. "They tell each other, 'The congressmen have millions themselves, don't they? They'll just kick the can down the road again, won't they?' "
But this year, "I tell them, I can't give you any guarantees."