Romney's 'Poor' Comment Is Plenty Defensible

Just hours after winning the Florida primary, Mitt Romney let loose a potential gaffe that turned what should have been a rallying moment for Republican supporters into an uncomfortable position of having to defend the man that is likely to face Obama in the general election.

If taken out of context, which the media is very adept to doing, Romney’s comment, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” sounds heartless and indefensible. In fact, that is exactly how many conservative commentators reacted.

From a purely political position, the criticism is reasonable. Romney effectively handed Democrats a shiny set of brass-knuckles to use against, not only him, but the Republican Party in general as being out of touch with every day Americans. As NRO’s David Kahane put it, “In the Fight of the Century between the Apologetic Oligarch and the Tribune of the Folks, who do you think the fans will be rooting for?” In other words, Romney unwillingly played into the class-warfare meme that Obama has wrapped himself in.

Jonah Goldberg says there are risks with Romney because he has yet to show he has mastered the art of the “stump” even after close to a decade of practice.

These are examples of criticism on the face of the issue. Other conservative commentators chose to hammer Romney on his acceptance of the welfare state, and no doubt relished at the opportunity to attack him before having to reluctantly support him in the general election. To this group, not only did Rommey make the mistake of choosing his words poorly, he also spoke of the welfare state as status-quo. Erick Erickson at Red State, and Mark Levin, are charging Romney of the same class-warfare tactics Obama and the Democrats use. Furthermore, from his choice of words Romney effectively endorsed poverty as a thing to be accepted instead of engineering ways for them to lift themselves up out of poverty. Alas, a New England, Rockefeller, Republican.

Mitt Romney said he wasn’t concerned about the poor. The poor, after all, have food stamps and Medicaid. But don’t worry. If the safety net is broken, Patrician Mitt Romney will fix it so the poor can stay comfortably poor (E. Erickson).

In an environment such as politics, perception is key. After all, there is a saying that is usually applied to politicians “Once you learn to fake sincerity, the rest is easy.” So maybe Romney does have a sincerity problem. But if sincerity is faked, which it usually is, why bother to do it? After all we have a president totally comfortable faking sincerity, and one who took Rousseau’s thoughtthe more obscure and uncertain the cause, the greater the effect: the greater the number of idlers one could count in a family, the more illustrious it was held to be” and won the presidency with it.

Romney’s full comment was a little deeper than some of the reactions suggested.

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 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.

It isn’t my job or even my concern to defend Romney by putting a positive spin on his comments. However, his remark did not cause this conservative to react negatively. I heard what he was saying loud and clear. It isn’t the duty of a president, Congress, or state governments to pull people up out of poverty. In fact, one could argue convincingly when those things are tried, poverty increases and wealth declines. So what we do have in place is a safety net for those who are down. It isn’t a permanent residence, it’s an interim position. The focus should always be growth and capital. When the economy is well, so is America’s labor force.

The economy is the engine that drives mobility because as long as our economic system rewards success and punishes failure (such as life) no station in life is monolithic. There is nothing destined in America.

Mobility is not limited to the top-earning households. A study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that nearly half of the families in the lowest fifth of income earners in 2001 had moved up within six years. Over the same period, more than a third of those in the highest fifth of income-earners had moved down. Certainly, there are people such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who are ensconced in the top tier, but far more common are people who are rich for short periods.

Very well then, Romney’s concern shouldn’t be with the poor. His concern should be with those who help drive the economy. Those who buy and produce, start businesses, buy homes and cars and hire employees. With a growing economy comes a rising tide of activity. And it’s from this activity that allows the poor opportunities to pull themselves up out of poverty. For lack of better words, the horse really does come before the cart. Or better, a physician is only concerned with a patient insofar as he can help cure the aliment. That is Romney’s position. Conservatives would do well if they thought more and reacted less.

We can belly-ache and lash our faces from grief and despair over the plight of the poor, or we can actually do something about the conditions for which there are so many poor among us.