I usually don’t like it when the media play Gotcha and take a perfectly innocent if inartful comment and make it sound heinous. But the latest Romney gaffe is stuck in my gills. It does make him sound, as Jonah Goldberg has noted, like “a caricature of a conventionally stiff country club Republican.” It makes me think he’s out of touch with the merely affluent.
The very poor? They’re just a category, a demographic, a socioeconomic unit, a quintile on a graph. They’re not people.
When he talks of “fixing” holes in the safety net he sounds like a rancher who may have trouble with a fence.
The truth is, we don’t talk about the poor much. Obama talks about the fabled middle-class all the time. Obama, at least, has been middle-class, while it’s probably been a while since Romney knew what that felt like, if he ever did. It’s true that America’s special national power emerges from a vibrant middle class, but when politicians hammer this note too often it can sound like they’re channeling their political consultants.
A president has to be the president for every American, rich or poor or middling income, of any race, ethnicity, religion, educational status, sexual orientation, age, employment status, etc. — and the best presidents and political leaders take that seriously and actually grow and develop on the job. I doubt Bobby Kennedy knew much about the poor when he was growing up, but by the time he ran for president in 1968 he had become a champion of the have-nots, and his younger brother carried on that cause. There are no strict rules about upbringing and subsequent policy — witness FDR and the New Deal. Ronald Reagan grew up poor and that may have shaped his antipathy to government welfare programs — it offended his sense that people had to get ahead through hard work and not handouts.
After Romney’s comment that he didn’t care about the very poor, he tried to clarify it, and revise it, in an unfortunate meeting with reporters on his plane. Absent from his explanation was a statement like this: “I actually do care about the poor.” Maybe he should address this head on. Why does he care about the middle class more than the poor? Maybe he’ll say that he thinks the government programs for the poor are fairly robust but the programs that benefit the middle class need revamping. Until then it’s a fair interpretation to think that Mitt Romney said what he really feels, that this is a Kinsley Gaffe (a politician telling the truth).
We should take him at his word.