There are two axioms about political gaffes. One, as Michael Kinsley famously wrote, is that a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. The other is that a gaffe does a politician lasting damage only when it reinforces a negative perception that already exists.
By those standards Mitt Romney made a major gaffe on Wednesday morning when he told CNN, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” This accidental truth is an accurate reflection of his policy priorities. And it is damaging because it plays into Romney’s callous Uncle Moneybags persona.
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, and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien generously offered Romney a chance to clarify his comments, and he just dug in deeper.
We will hear from the Democrat party, the plight of the poor…. You can focus on the very poor, that’s not my focus…. The middle-income Americans, they’re the folks that are really struggling right now and they need someone that can help get this economy going for them.
Conservative commentators, such as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, are wringing their hands over Romney’s political tin ear while arguing that he was making a perfectly valid point on the merits. And he sort of was. It is true that people living below the poverty line have access to federal programs such as Medicaid that the middle class, working class and working poor do not. (It is certainly also true that Romney knows the very poor won’t vote for him and the very rich will, so he has to win over those in between to win the election.)
Romney is arguing that his statement should be viewed in that context. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, Romney has already established that he doesn’t believe relevant context should matter when discussing anyone else’s comments, or at least President Obama’s. Romney cut an ad showing Obama quoting John McCain in 2008, without acknowledging that Obama was quoting his opponent, thus creating the false impression that Obama was talking about himself when he said, “if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Romney waved off such complaints with the irrelevant aphorism “what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander.”
But the reason Romney’s context does not get him off the hook is that he wants to decimate the social safety net for the very poor. Take Medicaid: Romney supports the Paul Ryan plan to slash Medicaid funding and turn it into a block grant program. The results would be a disastrous reduction in care, especially for the disabled.
And what about the near-poor? The Affordable Care Act addressed precisely the point Romney raises, by increasing the threshold for eligibility to 133 percent of the poverty level and creating subsidies for buying health insurance if you make up to four times the poverty rate. Romney has pledged to repeal the ACA on his first day in office. Romney also opposes expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program that helps lift the working poor out of poverty for a relatively nominal cost.
The mainstream media knock on Romney over this is about optics rather than policy. “The comment seems to have captivated the political psyche because it reinforces the Democrats’ biggest line of attack against Mr. Romney, as well as the Republicans’ worst fear: that Mr. Romney’s net worth, estimated at $200 million, leaves him out of touch and unable to relate to average Americans who are struggling,” writes Ashley Parker in the New York Times. That’s true enough. But you can be middle class and unconcerned about the very poor. The reason Romney’s comment should matter is because it reflects his platform and how he would govern as president. First of all, he vastly underestimates the breadth of poverty in America: 46.2 million Americans, or 15.1 percent of the US population, are living in poverty. His reference to the other 90 or 95 percent should be 85 percent. That may not sound like a big difference, but that translates to him underestimating the impoverished population by 15 to 30 million people. Secondly, he doesn’t care about this vast swath of the country, as his policies demonstrate and he just admitted. Thirdly, he is lying when he says he would help those who are struggling to stay just above the poverty line, when his policies would do no such thing. (Romney’s surprising support for indexing the minimum wage to inflation is one notable exception.) Ultimately, Romney deserves all the flack he will catch for this, not because he’s rich or he once said corporations are people but because he really doesn’t care about poor people.