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.”