Mitt Romney on CNN this morning made a classic “Kinsley gaffe,” a case of a politician accidentally saying what he thinks. The quote, “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” is going to be ripped out of context and bounced around the news all day today. It’ll also be a good opportunity for conservative pundits, who have mostly been lukewarm on Romney, to come to his defense now that he’s clearly going to be the nominee: because the quote is being taken out of context, the Fox and talk radio pundits will be able to push back against the coverage with a fairly clear conscience.
In context, what Romney was saying is that very poor people have a safety net to protect them; leaving aside the question of whether that safety net is enough or whether the language is insensitive, he’s saying that the issue that is foremost in our time is the issue of people who have too much money to be covered by the safety net, but not enough to get by.
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 the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.
This is actually a key issue in U.S. politics, Canadian politics and everywhere – what to do about people who are not poor but are living paycheck-to-paycheck in a precarious existence, and who are one disaster away from falling into poverty. The question then becomes whether to expand the social safety net to cover more people. What makes Romney’s comment so awkward is that he seems to imply that the safety net basically works (even if it needs repair), leaving him open to the question of why he doesn’t want to expand it.
His party has a ready-made answer to that – they believe, and have spent a long time arguing, that social safety nets erode self-reliance and weakens non-governmental institutions. (I don’t know about the self-reliance part, but the latter is probably true: the more assistance government provides, the less need there is for private charities and church organizations to do this kind of thing.) So the philosophy is that the safety net should be as targeted and tightly focused as possible on the poor. But most of the votes you need to win an election come from the people who are neither rich nor poor, and it’s not a political winner to tell them they’re not entitled to governmental goodies just because they don’t fall below the poverty line.
The GOP usually has been able to sidestep this problem because their main voting base is older, and older people in the U.S. are covered by entitlement programs. And except for the confusing health-care bill, the Democrats haven’t been able to push through many programs that would win them the gratitude of not-rich, not-poor potential voters. Which is too bad for them, because there’s a big opening there: both sides agree that the not-rich/not-poor are struggling, but Romney is going to have to argue that government is not the answer to those struggles. Obama might be able to get their attention if a) he argued that the social safety net should be bigger and apply to more people, and b) if people believed him. Both big “ifs.” But that’s where Romney’s real vulnerability is: not the “not concerned with the very poor” remark, but the fact that he can’t, as a matter of party philosophy, propose any government action to deal with the people in the middle.