Mitt Romney’s defenders argue that he was taken out of context when he declared, “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” pointing out that he also said, “We have a safety net [to help the very poor]. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” If anything, the context is more disturbing than the initial gaffe. To understand why, Romney needs to listen to the words of Ronald Reagan, whose birthday we celebrate today.

In his farewell address at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Reagan laid out a parting vision for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. He told the assembled delegates, “With each sunrise we are reminded that millions of our citizens have yet to share in the abundance of American prosperity. Many languish in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and bereft of hope. Still others hesitate to venture out on the streets for fear of criminal violence. Let us pledge ourselves to a new beginning for them.”

To help lift our fellow Americans from poverty, Reagan continued, “let us apply our ingenuity and remarkable spirit to revolutionize education in America, so that everyone among us will have the mental tools to build a better life.” And, he declared, “let us harness the competitive energy that built America, into rebuilding our inner cities so that real jobs can be created for those who live there and real hope can rise out of despair.”

In Reagan’s vision, conservatives should never accept a permanent underclass trapped in dependency and despair. But that is precisely what Romney described. Here is what Romney said: “We have a very ample safety net, and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.” So Romney is fine with an entire class of Americans being permanently on food stamps, Medicaid, housing vouchers and other government welfare programs? His solution for our fellow citizens trapped in poverty and dependency is to find holes in the safety net and repair them?

That is not conservatism. That is liberalism. The left judges compassion by how much money we spend, which is why the liberal project is to strengthen the safety net and grow the nanny state. The conservative project is to help people escape the safety net. Conservatives seek to create an opportunity society where we can lift people out of lives of dependency. We are not okay with having millions of Americans trapped in poverty and living on the dole. We are not okay with multiple generations trapped in government welfare. We believe in a society where the poor have opportunities for advancement. We want them to have the education and skills they need to find good jobs, get off public assistance and to move up to the middle class and beyond — as far as their ambition and ability will take them.

The country does not need a Republican president to expand the safety net and grow the welfare state — the left is doing just fine at this without Romney’s help. Today, under Barack Obama, spending on social welfare programs for the poor is nearly twice as generous as it was in 2007. Instead of talking about fixing the safety net, Romney should be pointing out is that under Barack Obama, more than 2.6 million Americans have slipped out of the middle class and below the poverty line. He should be arguing that the Obama economy has killed the opportunity to get jobs and crushed the hopes of those seeking a better life. Democrats, he should explain, are the party of downward mobility and the permanent welfare state; Republicans are the party of upward mobility and opportunity for all.

Instead of delivering this kind of bold, conservative message, Romney responded to the criticism of his comments by reaching into the liberal playbook and announcing that he backs indexing the federal minimum wage to inflation. That would be disastrous for poor Americans. Minimum wage increases are a recipe for keeping the young and least skilled out of the job market. They make it too expensive for already struggling small businesses to hire people. And while Democrats have raised the minimum wage, even they didn’t go so far as to index the minimum wage to rise automatically with inflation.

Romney should be talking about ways to create jobs for the poor, not kill them. Instead of reflexively embracing liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, he needs to get some tutorials on the creative conservative thinking that has been done over the last half-century in the fight against poverty. He needs to lay out a vision for an America where every one of our citizens — no matter what their station in life — has a chance for a better future. That was Ronald Reagan’s parting message for the GOP in 1992. It should be Romney’s message to the country in 2012.