Mitt’s “Very Poor” Phrasing

A friend asked me whether I cared to defend Mitt Romney today, given his (in the words of this friend) “‘I don’t care about the poor’ bit.”  He linked to a blog post from another friend, Eric Teetsel, at AEI, entitled “Mitt Romney: You Do Care About the Poor.”

The answer is basically: No, I don’t care to defend Romney in this case.

Earlier today, in an interview about his victory in Florida and the way forward in the campaign, Romney told Soledad Obrien that he’s “not concerned about the very poor.”  Follow this link to see the full-length comments.  The essence of it is this: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.  We have a safety net there.  If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.  I’m not concerned about the very rich.  They’re doing just fine.  I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

It was a silly thing to say.  Like every other politician, or like every other human being, Mitt Romney says foolish things from time to time.  When your words are constantly being recorded and scrutinized and broadcast to the public, you are bound to say foolish things in public venues, things that come back to hurt you.  This was one of those cases.  Mitt stepped in it.  This was bad messaging from just about every angle.

The question then becomes: What does this tell us about Romney?  The answer is: Not much.

First of all, to correct my friends, Romney did not say “I don’t care about the poor.”  He said, in the context of explaining the concerns that inspire him to run for office, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”  Is this a distinction without a difference?  I don’t think so.  In context, Mitt’s intention is clear: the basic concern that drives Romney to seek the presidency, and the basic concern that will drive his early actions in office, is not to develop the social safety nets that care for the poorest Americans.  He will fix those safety nets if they need fixing, he says, but by and large he seems to believe that they don’t need expansion.  Rather, he wants to focus on the circumstances of those who are neither “very poor” nor “very rich” — to fix a situation in which families that work hard and play by the rules can still have a tough time paying the bills.

Now, it bears mentioning that both parties tend to focus their rhetoric on the middle class, since that’s where the votes are.  And the middle class has had it tough in recent years.  Romney believes that the free market provides the best solutions to what ails the middle class — and he wants to focus his efforts on the middle 90% of Americans who are neither extremely poor nor extremely rich.  This is hardly scandalous stuff — Obama too focuses his rhetoric and his efforts on the middle class, agreeing that they have fallen the furthest backward in the present economic struggles — but the way he said it was quite unfortunate.

Understandably, Mitt’s political opponents will seize upon his words as evidence that he is out of touch and elitist.  To which the question should be: Does this mean you are for expanding the social safety nets that serve the very poor?  Because that’s what Mitt was (clumsily) saying: that he does not believe we need to expand our social safety nets.

But Mitt, like Republicans in general, needs to reclaim the language of compassion for the poor.  It’s not compassionate to leave the very poor tangled up in our social safety nets.  It’s not compassionate to promote dependency.  What is compassionate — what actually serves the interest of the very poor, as well as everyone else — is unleashing economic growth that brings greater opportunity, better values and better compensation for everyone.  The very poor are not doing fine.  They’re drowning in the unintended consequences of liberals’ good intentions — their families are falling apart, their spirits and creativity are languishing, and the economic virtues are withering from their communities because of the perverse mis-incentives of government largesse.

Mitt needs to learn how to be America’s foremost expositor and defender of the power of the free market.  He’s not quite there yet.

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  • Louis Gundlach

    Best analysis that I have read about a minor gaffe that we will definitely see again. Thanks

  • dave

    Well said. Hopefully Mitt reads it…and takes your advise!

  • Steve

    Mitt was just stating his priorities. There was nothing wrong with his stated priorities, unless you take it out of context and that’s what the media did. Nobody can defend against the media taking words out of context. He should just attack the media, as Gingrich did. But Mitt is too classy for that.

  • Allen Thorpe

    He wasn’t talking about his overall philosophy of government or the constitution, vis a vis the very poor. He was talking about something else, the priority he would give to the burdens and benefits of government on the various parts of the populace. That’s a broad and technical subject, that he was trying to cover in shorthand.

    If I were he, I’d let the press know that such cherry picking of phrases without context would result in less trusting, candid discourse from his side. It’s this gotcha kind of reporting that makes for poor press relations.

    Still, reporters love to quote out of context or report statements they know will be made controversial by others. He shouldn’t try to speak to them except off the record late at night on planes between campaign stops.

  • Bill Trip

    He needs economic sensitivity training. Team Obama will use this against him in the general election. Of course, democrats don’t care about the poor unless they are voting to keep them in power.

  • francisbeckwith

    Thankfully, he did not say “The poor will always be with us.” They would have crucified him.

    • Timothy Dalrymple


  • Kay Shannon

    I don’t need for Romney to explain; I know what he means. The very poor have help–a modest amount of money each month, healthcare for their children, and foodstamps. No one receiving those benefits would claim to have a life of luxury, but there is something. The working poor who do not qualify for assistance are the ones who are being squeezed in today’s difficult economic times. There are many reasons people are there right now–the unemployed, underemployed, those suffering with mental illness, and many others.

    I often try to point out that “overly cost-conscious” conservatives come across as very mean spirited when they seemingly wish to leave people to die without any medical care. Conservatives say that never happens…people aren’t dying outside the hospital doors. Well I can tell you that I’ve had two brothers who were self employed with individual healthcare policies. They both got cancer (both in 50’s when diagnosed) and their insurance providers cancelled at the beginning of the year after the diagnosis. Many people know what it is like to have a loved one sick with no medical care.

    My point is this–in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney implemented a healthcare system that would provide for these people in that insurance “no-man’s land.” That is the context for what he was talking about.

    Newt Gingrich is running a campaign to raise $1M to defeat “Obamneycare” as a way to rile up the right wing conservatives to fight against Mr. Romney. I would suggest that Mr. Romney developed a better “states’ rights” solution than Mr. Obama’s federal mandate. Mr. Gingrich is on record as supporting a federal mandate.

  • Dan

    In my opinion, Mitt (and all the Republican candidates really) should say something along these lines every time someone turns on a microphone near them: “What is compassionate — what actually serves the interest of the very poor, as well as everyone else — is unleashing economic growth that brings greater opportunity, better values and better compensation for everyone.”

  • Richard

    I disagree with your sentiment that this is an “unfortunate gaffe.” I think he was being perfectly honest. His economic proposals would cut crucial threads in the “safety nets” he declares are there and working well. He’s either unaware of the impact of his proposals or he’s being deceptive when he’ll fill the holes in our current social safety nets.

    On a more personal note, do you work/volunteer/have relationship with many people that rely on social safety nets? I’m asking because I don’t want to rely on an incorrect assumption that you don’t.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      So…is he being perfectly honest, or deceptive? I think he’s sincere about filling any holes in the safety nets, not wanting those who truly need help to fall through — but also it’s clear that this is not his primary focus.

      To your question, the answer is yes, I do. I believe in the importance of safety nets, but my approach to poverty is really quite different from the liberal programme. You can see the letter to the president, for instance, that I cowrote at

      • Richard

        Glad to hear you work with people experiencing poverty and believe in the importance of safety nets. I’m not a fan of our current system is set up but Romeny’s economic & budgetary proposals wouldn’t mend holes, they would shrink nets. I do think this was a moment of honesty, even if unintentional, think of it as a “freudian slip” (popular definition, not academic). And I think it reflects him being very out of touch with both the lower class and middle class. Many working, for middle class Americans are having to rely on these nets and its exactly a result of the brand of capitalism that he touts without shame.

  • Tim

    I find the overanalyzing criticism of Romney’s words ridiculous, and I wll be voting for the incumbent. Is there grace to be found anywhere in this election process? I find the way we are treating one another soul crushing.

  • Bill

    I do think you all are missing something that is at least a bit important here. Can any of you think of any context in which the words “I’m not concerned about the very poor” would pass your lips? Can any of you think of any context in which the words “I enjoy firing people” would pass your lips? Can any of you think of any context in which you’d make a “$10,000” bet? I know you can argue context with all of Romney’s gaffes, but even in context they tell us something about him. There is no context in which I’d ever say “I enjoy firing people.” Because I don’t. I can’t even send food back at a restaurant. Even if someone is harming me, I don’t enjoy firing them. It’s always difficult. There is no context in which I’d ever say “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” I might say “I think we need to really focus our efforts initially on the middle class,” but who begins that discussion saying “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” There has to be an extremely limited number of human beings who in any situation would find those words coming out of their lips. And the question is, do you want such a human being running your country?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Eh, I still say context is important. If I were giving speeches and interviews around the clock, and every single thing I said was recorded for posterity and searched for mistakes, I really don’t know what I might say that would, out of context, sound terrible. Besides, I do think he comes from a perspective that sees the very poor in America as relatively well provided for, and not having fallen as far back in the last 4-5 years at the middle have. And from a perspective where it’s very important to have the ability to fire people. A public school that’s burdened with teachers it cannot remove is a good example of what happens when we’re not free to direct our resources to those who use them wisely. So, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m guessing that Romney comes from a fairly different worldview than you do. I think most conservatives understood what Romney was getting at, in both cases, right away. He just said it poorly, and I’m not going to reject him for it any more than I would reject Obama for claiming to have visited 57 states. Arguably, a slip like Obama’s encouraging Hispanics to “punish our enemies” is much more revealing, but even there I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that it was some combination of weariness and heedlessness and over-exposure.