You can always count on one politician or another to provide the requisite scandal of the day to give those folks on cable news something to talk about. And things were looking dismal. After the Florida primary – where Mitt Romney won handily and Newt Gingrich was reduced to sputtering about how the Republican establishment was useless, as useless as the Democratic establishment, and he was going to run a peoples’ campaign and to hell with all of them, and would win big and show them all, damn it – the folks who make a living saying what might or might not be wise things, about who is up and who is down and why, were facing a barren period. The next primaries were many weeks off, and many of them are not even primaries – they’re those odd caucuses that are so unpredictable and often not all that predictive. And thus it seemed the month of February was shaping up to be a month with no real campaigning – no flood of charges and countercharges, no array of attack ads financed by the dozen or so absurdly wealthy individuals who now underwrite almost all political activity in the country, and no debates, one after the other after the other. What would people talk about? Sure, candidates might issue statements, presenting bold new ideas, but there’d be no in-your-face arguments about what they proposed. There would be no forum for that. February would be a month for the candidates, quietly and out of the public eye, to consolidate support, seeing who might be willing to publicly endorse them, and what they wanted for that endorsement in return. And it would be a month for raising money. Sure, those few absurdly wealthy individuals will drop five or ten million dollars, or much more, at a pop, in the Super Pac every few days if necessary. But you do have to ask – or somehow make your case slyly, as these Super Pac things must, by law, work independently of the candidates. This is hard work. But it’s also work that is done in the background. The public could fret over the Super Bowl or American Idol or whatever. Politics was about to go underground.
But on the first day of February, Mitt Romney, now the Republican frontrunner and now more than ever considered Mitt the Inevitable, managed to shift from basking in his success to putting his foot in his mouth again – he explained to CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien that he is focused on one particular portion of the American population in his campaign, which is kind of boring. Yes, he has priorities. Everyone does. And listening to someone else list their priorities is useful. But it’s not all that compelling. Yawn. But then he said something very odd:
I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a 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.
But O’Brien was surprised – “There are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say, ‘That sounds odd.'” And she gave him a chance to walk that back, at least the wording of it. But he didn’t get it.
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.
A quick reaction from Andrew Sullivan:
How many times now has he said things in public that are completely disastrous? “I like to fire people.” “Wanna bet $10,000?” An annual income of $370,000 is “not very much.” And now this.
Just because Romney looks smooth doesn’t mean he is. He is often a dreadfully inept candidate. Last night, his victory speech was repellent; this morning he goes and says something this crass.
Of course Republicans aren’t at all happy about this:
“Facepalm,” Michelle Malkin wrote of the incident, which she said “could easily have been a Saturday Night Live parody.”
Over at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg said the quote raised concerns that Romney is “simply not a good enough politician” to beat Obama. “There are plenty of things one could say to defend Romney on the merits of what he says here,” he wrote. “But great politicians on the morning after a big win don’t force their supporters to go around defending the candidate from the charge that he doesn’t care about the poor. They just don’t.”
“Romney’s ‘I’m not concerned with the very poor’ line may be the most idiotic thing a politician has ever said,” The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack tweeted.
RedState, whose bloggers have traditionally not been Romney fans, added their voices to the pile. According to co-founder Erick Erickson, Romney “played straight into the liberal caricature that Republicans don’t have hearts.” He added that “The issue here is not that Romney is right or wrong, but that he is handing choice sound bites to the Democrats to make him as unlikeable as he made Newt Gingrich.”
And there’s the philosophical point here:
“The subtext of Romney’s comment is actually worse – that the safety net is the only answer the poor need,” conservative blogger Ben Domenech tweeted.
His charge is that Romney doesn’t even understand modern conservative thought – there should be no safety net at all, forcing the poor to grow up, to take responsibility for themselves, to get jobs and stop taking our money and smirking, or die, for they own good. What kind of conservative is this Romney guy anyway?
And Benjy Sarlin adds this:
As Romney moves closer the nomination, there’s increasing anxiety on the right that Democrats have found his weak spot by trying to brand him as a callous “Gordon Gekko” – fears that are further stoked by Romney’s cratering favorability ratings with independents. Could this be Newt’s opening to keep up his assault on Romney’s Bain Capital days and his tax returns?
And all Ross Douthat can say is, well, it could have been worse:
His “I’m not concerned about the very poor” comments were embedded in an attempt – however clumsy and faltering – to define himself as a champion of the hard-pressed middle class, and to distance himself both from the “just expand the welfare state” politics of the left and the “just cut taxes on the wealthy, and the rest will take care of itself” politics that too often defines the contemporary right. He may not have hit that sweet spot, but at least he knows that the sweet spot exists – whereas many conservatives seem convinced that the best way for Romney to counteract his image as an out-of-touch Richie Rich is to embrace policies that are only likely to confirm that stereotype.
Douthat has a point there – it’s easy to imagine many a conservative saying HELL YEAH, the poor are useless – screw them – and the very rich are the Real Americans – so let them be. That might be emotionally satisfying, but deadly in the general election. Exploding in thundering righteous anger – in this case directed at the parasitic scum who are ruining everything and taking OUR money – is extremely cathartic on a very personal level, and thus a bit addictive, and eventually makes you look like a jerk. There’s a fine line between encouraging self-reliance and sadistic glee in hurting others by cutting off all help – or there is these days. Romney was playing with fire here.
But there’s something else that’s insidious here. Romeny is not very concerned about the very poor. And he’s not concerned about the very rich. And he has his reasons – logical and sensible ones actually. But he says that he’s really concerned about another group – Americans. And that’s an odd formulation. He literally says the very poor aren’t really Americans – they don’t rise to that level – they don’t deserve it. And the very rich, in this construction, aren’t really Americans either – perhaps by virtue of their success they’ve risen above the confines of something as mundane as nationality, and rules, and taxes of course. Think of the Nietzsche ubermenschen and all that.
Now Romney clearly didn’t mean to say all that. He’s apparently not making that argument. But his specific choice of words does make that argument. He didn’t mean that. He only said that. The specific words you use, and their order, do matter – at least in politics.
And this was not lost on Red State’s Erik Erickson:
It is days like today that make me thankful I think they all suck. At least I’m thankful I’m in the firmly not Romney camp.
Having told us only Romney was viable (with half-nods to Huntsman and Santorum) and having trotted out Elliot Abrams to smear Newt Gingrich with out of context quotes, even National Review is having trouble defending their candidate today.
This morning 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. After all, just look what he did in Massachusetts. The poor can now wait 44 days to get in to see a doctor. Excelsior!
And of course Newt Gingrich piled on:
I’m fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other… the Founding Fathers wrote that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life and the pursuit of happiness. The Founding Fathers meant all of us. Let me shock the Wall Street crowd. The Founding Fathers meant the 1 percent, who they called Americans. The Founding Fathers meant the very poor, who they called Americans. My goal is to find steps for every American to have a job, every American to work, every American to buy a house. I believe America was founded on a dream that we are in fact created equal and we have a chance to go out and have a chance to pursue happiness and that nobody of any background should be denied.
Under the platitudes Gingrich did get to the semiotics of the thing – simple textual analysis of the words reveals meaning, not the examination of all sorts of statements of intent about meaning. Jacques Derrida would be proud of Newt’s post-structural approach and Newt’s deconstructionist skills. French semiotic theory, you ask? Newt is fluent in French after all.
Well maybe that’s too arcane, so here’s an interesting view from Steve M:
This is lite dog-whistling. Note that the very poor (and, yes, the very rich) are not, according to Romney, Americans. Romney is codedly implying that a certain Kenyan Muslim socialist Negro with ties to Goldman Sachs and George Soros is, in fact, excessively concerned with the needs of the people at the very top and the very bottom. Maybe it’s not racial dog-whistling precisely, but it’s Beck-like – at the deepest level, it taps into the notion that rootless-cosmopolitan sophisticates like Obama (and Soros) wallow in government-linked high-finance riches and the decadence of the lower orders simultaneously. It’s what you get when you take the overt ethnic stereotyping out of the early-twentieth-century notion of the International Jew foisting rampaging, jazz-inflamed Negroes on poor white Christians down on the farm.
Well, that may be a bit much, actually. But Steve M also adds this:
It’s a talking point he wants to take into the campaign. He wants to divide and conquer; he wants middle-class people who’ve had the rug pulled out from under them in this recession to feel that their interests are in opposition to the interests of “the very poor.” He wants them to think that President Obama is excessively concerned with “the very poor” at their expense.
Will this work? I don’t know. But it’s no slip-up. It’s no gaffe.
No. It’s a gaffe, from a guy who is bad with words and just doesn’t realize what he’s saying. It must have sounded good to him as he was saying it but it came out all wrong. George Bush had the same problem.
And BooMan puts it this way:
What he seems to be saying is that there are a lot of people out there who want to work and who are accustomed to a middle class way of life, and then there is a giant underclass of permanently unemployed poor people that he doesn’t give a shit about. I guess that’s not an uncommon way of looking at the world if you travel in conservative circles, but it’s not very attractive and it isn’t usually expressed so clearly by presidential candidates.
Yes, but Steve Benen argues that, as a matter of substance, Romney’s position was just a mess:
For one thing, it’s tone-deaf to a breathtaking degree. When a hyper-wealthy politician boasts about taking pleasure in firing people, he probably shouldn’t tell national television audiences he’s “not concerned about the very poor.”
For another, Romney’s candid admission underscores a larger policy problem: he’s not only unconcerned with the plight of the very poor, he is also pursuing an agenda that would make their lives considerably more difficult. If elected, a Romney administration intends to slash public investments that benefit working families, while raising taxes on those at the bottom of the income scale.
Let’s also not forget that while Romney insisted this morning that he’s “not concerned about the very rich,” either, there’s ample evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the presidential hopeful has already presented a plan to give the very wealthy yet another massive tax break.
And as for Romney’s purported concern for the middle class, what the former governor neglected to mention this morning is that his tax plan largely ignores the middle class. By his own admission, Romney doesn’t plan to do much of anything for middle-income earners.
Taken together, in one interview, Romney managed to sound callous towards those struggling, lie about his agenda’s focus on the wealthy, and ignore the relevant details of his disregard for the middle class.
But other than that Romney was just fine.
John Dickerson has a slightly different take:
This statement is striking for many reasons. Most are obvious – it is thoroughly ham-fisted for a politician to ever say he doesn’t care about part of the electorate, particularly the “very poor.” Everyone knows that much. But Romney’s gaffe signals something more about the general election to come. As it looks more likely that Obama and Romney will square off, we are faced with a new prospect: The 2012 presidential election may devolve into a battle between two aloof men trading charges about who is more out of touch.
Romney’s slip has faint echoes of some of Barack Obama’s own tone-deaf remarks from the last election. In the 2008 race, when Obama said the economy caused people to “cling to their guns and religion,” it was the perfect encapsulation of a stereotype that Republicans had been sketching for months: Obama was smug, detached, and clueless. When the Democratic candidate with the Ivy League pedigree seemed dismissive of two things conservatives cherish, it intensified the feeling. I’ve heard this played back relentlessly on the GOP campaign trail this election. Romney has now offered his own encapsulating blunder, lightening the load for every Democratic advance man charged with making sure the crowds are raucous and ready. Anyone warming up the crowd for President Obama need only repeat these words and the roars will begin.
So now things are tough for Romney:
This isn’t the first time the wealthy Romney has freshened the image of himself as disconnected from the plight of those less fortunate than he (which, after all, is most of us). After his resounding win in New Hampshire, Romney said that income inequality was the product of “envy” and that the topic should be discussed only in “quiet rooms.”
Polling suggests that voters find President Obama more empathetic with their plight than Mitt Romney. Fifty-five percent of voters see President Obama as doing a decent job connecting with average Americans, including 30 percent who say he does so very well, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters see former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as connecting at least “fairly well” with the same group, although a slender 7 percent say “very well.”
So this doesn’t help:
Mitt Romney has a single job as the Republican frontrunner: to keep the country focused on Barack Obama’s dismal record. Comments like this one distract from that purpose in two ways. They put Romney on the defensive. Of course I care about the poor, he now must say. (There are 46 million of them after all, even if they don’t vote much.) They also make it much harder for him to paint the president as out of touch when he looks out of touch himself….
Still, if you look at the context of Romney’s remarks, they are defensible. He has said similar things many times. In a time of limited government resources, he wants to spend precious government dollars on the middle class first, which he thinks is the pressing problem. He may be wrong about the stability of the safety net and his programs might not help the middle class, but those are different questions than whether he is a scrooge.
But Romney can’t weasel out of this one:
Romney’s first ad attacking President Obama took remarks he made about the economy wildly out of context. In a speech during the 2008 election, Obama quoted an aide to John McCain saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The Romney campaign made it look like the words had come from Obama, not the McCain aide. So Romney’s team has no grounds to cry foul now if Democrats run up and down the street saying that Romney doesn’t care about poor people.
Hoist with his own petard! And of course a petard is a small bomb used to blow up gates and walls when breaching fortifications – that’s what Hamlet was giggling about, when he imagined the plotters plots blowing up in their own faces. Oh, never mind. Romney’s team can’t bitch about being taken out of context now. They screwed the pooch here, if you don’t like petards.
But damn, sometimes politicians actually do say just what they mean, even if they say they don’t really mean what they actually just said. Go figure. And which of the candidates is more out of touch? Who can tell? But it is something to talk about in the dead month of February. And the odd thing is that this may be important.