"I was a severely conservative Republican governor," Mitt Romney told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2012.
Conservatives snickered. "I may be a little giddy here," Rush Limbaugh said. "I have never heard anybody say, 'I'm severely conservative.'"
Really, who says such a thing? The answer: The same kind of person who says, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." The same kind of person who says, "We’re the party of people who want to get rich." The same kind of person who says, "Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.... So my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
These appear to be the words of somebody who doesn't understand American conservatism and its relationship to the American idea. Conservatives don't believe in economic determinism. Conservatives know--and explain why--their economic policies will help the poor, as well as senior citizens, working families, and our troops who pay no income taxes. Conservatives realize that the Republican party is not the party of people who want to be rich, it's the party of people who want to be free.
The reason such remarks keep slipping out of Mitt Romney's mouth is not that Romney wants to wage a class war against lower-income Americans. The likely problem is that Mitt Romney is not a conservative--or at least wasn't a conservative until late in life--but he is running for president as the nominee of the conservative party on a conservative platform. So he has trouble defending conservative ideas. And when he sells himself to conservatives, he sometimes comes across as a right-wing caricature.
A few on the right are arguing today that Romney's remarks about those who pay no income tax are in fact conservative. But compare his remarks about this group with his remarks about the "very poor." In both instances, he reduced a group of Americans to an economic class. In February, he basically conceded that his economic agenda doesn't really speak to the poor--or those concerned about the poor. In May, he conceded that tax reform, a big part of his economic agenda, doesn't speak to the half of the country that doesn't pay income taxes.
"Conservatives are not the ones who either engage in the war of the classes or the division of America into classes," Charles Krauthammer said in February. "The moral case for conservative economics is that our policies are going to help everybody, including the poor."
Senator Jim DeMint agreed. “I think he was trying to make a case that [the poor are] taken care of," DeMint said. "But, in fact, I would say I’m worried about the poor because many are trapped in dependency; they need a good job; they don’t need to be on social welfare programs."
That's the case Mitt Romney should have made today.
But in an interview this afternoon, he conceded yet again that his tax policies won't appeal to half the country. "I'm talking about a perspective of individuals who I'm not likely to get to support me," Romney told Neil Cavuto on Fox News. "I recognize that those people who are not paying income tax are going to say, gosh, this provision that Mitt keeps talking about, lowering income taxes, that's not going to be real attractive to them."
The strange thing is that Romney's tax plan isn't actually aimed at lowering taxes. It's a revenue neutral plan that is designed to spur growth--and create jobs--by lowering rates and reducing or eliminating tax loopholes. Maybe it's a hard plan to sell, but I've watched Paul Ryan persuasively make the case to skeptical constituents that tax reform would grow the economy and create a fairer tax code.
But the case for tax reform--like the case against Obamacare, the looming debt crisis, Obama's foreign policy, and many other issues--is a case Romney hasn't been willing to make.