The Magazine

Romney in Context

The candidate’s rhetoric needs a safety net.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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In so doing, Romney seemed utterly unaware of a long strain of conservative thought on the morality of capitalism. He seemed oblivious to the argument​—​central to the conservative movement​—​that free markets allow the poor to transcend their position, that poverty is not destiny. He seemed not to realize that the “safety net” does not allow policymakers to “focus” elsewhere, but requires them to fashion policies to reduce the need for such programs. 

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, is the latest conservative intellectual to treat these issues. In The Battle, published last year, he wrote:

Welfare programs rely on the idea that poverty is simply a problem of a lack of money. As W. C. Fields put it, “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” But the problem is that giving the poor money does not alleviate poverty in the long (or even the short) run. Instead, it masks cultural conditions by treating the symptoms.

Dogged by the reaction to his comments, Romney sought to clarify them later that day. He made the same mistakes​—​listing the programs that make up the safety net and reiterating his campaign’s focus on the middle class. 

Pete Wehner, a former aide to George W. Bush who has written favorably of Romney in recent weeks, wrote: “Some of us became conservatives in some measure because we believed liberalism had failed the underclass and conservatism had something important to offer. So to have the likely Republican nominee say ‘I’m not concerned about the very poor’ reveals a mindset that is disquieting.” 

Romney has had trouble connecting with conservatives because many of them believe his conservatism is clinical, not visceral. They worry that he has learned conservative arguments in order to become the Republican nominee, not because he has been drawn to conservative ideas for their own sake. 

By week’s end, Romney had backtracked further, saying he had misspoken​—​a claim that’s hard to believe given that he repeated his argument three times before abandoning it. But he received some help from Marco Rubio, who had shared his own story in the Republican response to the president’s radio address a week earlier. 

“My father was a bartender,” Rubio said. “And I thank God every night that there was someone willing to risk their money to build a hotel on Miami Beach and later in Las Vegas where he could work. I thank God that there was enough prosperity in America so people could go on vacation to Miami or Las Vegas. Where people felt prosperous enough to have weddings or Bar Mitzvahs and, by the way, could leave tips in my Dad’s little tip jar. Because with that money he raised us. And he gave me the opportunity to do things he never had a chance to do.”

If Romney wants to return to Tampa to accept the GOP nomination, he would do well to spend more time before then with Rubio. And maybe, in a more formal way, afterwards.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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