Why Romney Is ‘Not Concerned’ About the Poor

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For Pete's sake — you're running for office! Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Mitt Romney has been implying, for a while, that he doesn’t really care about the poor. Last night, he took the unfortunate step of actually saying so:

“I’m not concerned with the very poor. We have a safety net there,” Romney told CNN. “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.”

This statement is actually not that different from Romney’s normal, repeated formulation.

Here, for example, is Romney last September:

“We ought to provide help to the people who have been hurt most by the Obama economy. And that’s the middle class,” Romney said at a town hall meeting in Miami. “It’s not those at the very low end; it’s certainly not those at the very high end. It’s for the great middle class — the 80 to 90 percent of us in this country.”

And here he is the following month:

I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that’s the middle class. I’m not worried about rich people. They are doing just fine. The very poor have a safety net, they’re taken care of. But the people in the middle, the hard-working Americans, are the people who need a break, and that is why I focused my tax cut right there.

This is really all the same idea. The poor have a safety net, so they’re less deserving of help than the middle class (which, of course, has a safety net as well, but never mind that.)

Why does Romney say this? He wants to inoculate himself from the charge that his program would disproportionately help the rich. (A charge that happens to be true, but never mind that, either.) But disclaiming any intention of helping the rich is dangerous stuff in a Republican primary. So he has to balance it off by disclaiming any intention of helping the poor, either. The rich and poor — both doing great! (Also, Romney will be sure that neither rich nor poor are permitted to sleep under bridges.)

The positive side of this is that Romney is not singling out the poor as parasites, in the classic tradition of Ronald Reagan’s "welfare queen", Phil Gramm’s welfare wagon, or countless others. Romney’s profession of indifference to the poor is a relatively decent sentiment in the context of modern conservatism. On the other hand, the idea that the middle class and not the poor is “hurting the most” is utterly absurd. It’s also worth noting that his budget proposal would require enormous cuts in programs for low-income people.

It may not be true that, at a personal level, Romney doesn’t care about the poor. He probably does. But his platform doesn’t. In that sense, his slip-up was a gaffe in the classic sense of admitting what he actually thinks.