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.