Fresh off his big win in Florida Tuesday night, Mitt Romney made the most stunningly stupid remark of his campaign.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” Romney said in an interview with CNN's Soledad O'Brien this morning. “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 the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
"There are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say, 'That sounds odd,'" O'Brien replied.
"Well, finish the sentence, Soledad," Romney said. "I said I'm not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. We will hear from the Democrat party, the plight of the poor. And there's no question, it's not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans. You can choose where to focus, you can focus on the rich. That's not my focus. You can focus on the very poor, that's not my focus. My focus in on middle income Americans. Retirees living on Social Security, people who can't find work, folks that have kids that are getting ready to go to college. These are the people most badly hurt during the Obama years. We have a very ample safety net and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor. But 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.”
It's obvious that Romney's statement that he's "not concerned about the very poor" is incredibly tone-deaf. A candidate can say he's "focused" on the middle class without saying he's "not concerned" about the very poor, just as a candidate can say he's "focused" on the economy without saying he's "not concerned" about national security or even less vital issues like education.
But Romney's remark isn't merely tone-deaf, it's also un-conservative. The standard conservative argument is that a conservative economic agenda will help everyone. For the poor, that means getting as many as possible back on their feet and working rather than languishing as wards of the welfare state.
And then of course there are the poor who will rely on the safety net even in good times. Romney isn't sure if the safety net is in need of repair, but for the poor, Medicaid is a dysfunctional system because of federal regulation. So Republicans are united behind the proposal to block-grant the program back to the states--not just to save money but to help the poor. School choice is another conservative program designed to help poor children flourish.
Medicare and Social Security--programs Romney promised to protect the other night--are the two huge safety net programs, and they are being threatened by runaway spending. To be anti-debt is to be anti-poverty. As Congressman Paul Ryan says, when a debt crisis hits the elderly and the poor are hit the first and the worst.
Had Mitt Romney picked up his conservatism sooner, perhaps he would know these arguments by heart.