On October 1, 2010, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney described the genius of the American idea and lauded its results. “No nation has done more to lift people out of poverty than this nation,” he said in remarks at Benedetto’s, an Italian restaurant in Tampa, Florida. “Our free enterprise system has lifted billions out of poverty.”
Romney spoke at a “Reclaiming America Rally” for Marco Rubio, then a candidate for the Senate. It was one of three events Romney did that day with Rubio. The two men chatted in the kitchen before their remarks to a crowd that spilled into side rooms and out the restaurant’s front door.
Romney worked Florida hard for years, laying the groundwork for his sweeping victory in the Republican primary on January 31, a contest in which he outpolled the combined total of the next two non-Romney candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, by 20,000 votes. Rubio did not endorse Romney, but he criticized a Spanish-language ad from Gingrich that called Romney “anti-immigrant.” Gingrich pulled the ad, and the resulting media coverage certainly didn’t hurt Romney among the Hispanics who voted in the Republican primary.
Romney’s victory in Florida came just 10 days after he lost badly to Gingrich in South Carolina. Florida was always going to be Romney-friendly, in part because of the sophisticated work his campaign had done there for years, and especially in the six weeks before the polls opened. Still, Romney had to overcome Gingrich’s momentum from South Carolina—enough of a bump to give the Georgian a short-lived lead in several statewide polls.
Romney won because he answered two of the three central questions of his candidacy: (1) Can he demonstrate the toughness Republicans will want to see in their challenger to Barack Obama? (2) Can he discuss his wealth and business experience in a way that doesn’t turn off voters? (3) Can he persuade skeptical conservatives that he should be the Republican nominee?
Romney used two debate appearances between South Carolina and Florida to address the first two questions. He offered pointed critiques of Gingrich, leaving the former House speaker speechless—no small accomplishment. Romney also beat back attacks on his work at Bain Capital—“I won’t apologize for being successful”—and moved beyond the damage caused by his inability to answer questions about releasing his tax returns. It was the best 10 days of his campaign—a victory dampened only by one finding in the Florida exit polls: 7 in 10 voters who described themselves as “very conservative” voted for someone else.
And then just 12 hours later, in an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Romney made comments that will make it even harder for him to win over movement conservatives. “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he said. “We have a safety net there.”
O’Brien looked as if she didn’t believe what she’d heard, so she pressed him to clarify. “There are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say: ‘That sounds odd.’ ”
Romney suggested that she was quoting him selectively. It’s worth considering his response at length:
Well, finish the sentence, Soledad. 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. . . .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 is 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.
The comments are problematic for obvious reasons. It’s never a good thing when a candidate says, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” It’s especially bad when that candidate’s net worth is estimated at $250 million. Democrats will undoubtedly use them in ads to suggest that Romney is indifferent to the destitute. In that rather limited way, Romney was correct that his words were taken out of context.
But in many respects Romney’s words are more problematic because of their context. He seemed to consign the poor to a station in life. He suggested that society has done its duty because of the fact that “we have a safety net.”
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.