I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor -- we have a safety net there. 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 America, the 90 to 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling. ... I'm not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, then I will repair it.
-- Mitt Romney, in an interview with CNN's Soledad O'Brien
Mitt Romney's gaffe last week (reproduced in full, above) is going to wind up the "gaffe that keeps on giving" for Barack Obama and the Democrats in this election cycle. Because the more Romney's comment is examined and dissected, the worse it looks for him. This could, in fact, be the defining moment for Mitt Romney as a national political presence. That phrase is often bandied about in politics, but I use it here in the full literal sense of "defining moment" -- a point in time which absolutely cements an image in the public mind of who you are and what you stand for as a politician. The image, quite obviously, is not a good one for Romney.
The statement caused an initial media frenzy, which almost exclusively focused on the sound bite -- "I'm not concerned about the very poor" -- which was being spliced into Democratic ads before the sun had even set. Even Newt Gingrich piled on that part of Romney's statement, fulminating that anyone running for president should have the good sense to be concerned with all Americans (or at least say so in public, for Pete's sake). This is Politics 101, folks, and the fact that it took Newt Gingrich to point it out to Romney was highly amusing to Lefties everywhere.
Romney desperately tried to spin his statement, and wound up floundering: "You've got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying -- and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different." Um, well, that would be true of just about any political gaffe, wouldn't it? If you got to go back and re-edit your own words in such a manner, then gaffes wouldn't even exist. Unfortunately for Mitt, they do.
Romney, of course, is going to complain loudly when the "not concerned about the very poor" soundbite is used against him in ads, but he simply has no leg to stand on when it comes to "context." He has no credibility on the subject, and no moral high road to take. He has already, in this election, run an ad of Barack Obama saying: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." What Obama said -- with context -- was actually the exact opposite: "Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." Romney's campaign, when the ad came out, defended its use, saying "We used that quote intentionally." So good luck begging for context in political ads now, guys.
Even more unfortunately for Mitt, the out-of-touch and elitist image this gaffe conjures up is exactly the image a lot of folks already had of Romney. He appears to many as the type of guy who has no idea who the "very poor" are, or how they live. The only way a guy like Mitt Romney interacts with poor people -- when not actually on the campaign trail -- is either in an employer/employee relationship (as with the domestic help in his multiple houses) or a patron/servant relationship (the valet parking his car, the busboy clearing his table, or perhaps a ski lift operator). Neither breeds any sort of real understanding of what it is like to occupy this rung of the social ladder in Mitt -- or, for that matter, the fears many middle-class folks have of being one financial emergency away from a dive headfirst into that safety net. The man has lived in a bubble for almost his entire life -- and it shows.
But while most of the attention so far has been focused on the "out of touch" nature of Mitt's "very poor" choice of words, the real damage to Mitt as a Republican candidate stems from how he attempted to explain what he really meant. Ignore the soundbite/gaffe part of Mitt's statement, and things get even worse for him among his party's base. Chalk this one up as a victory for the Occupy Wall Street movement, because all of a sudden the Republican Party as a whole was having a debate about their party's poverty policies. In a million years, I never could have imagined that happening without the outside force of the Occupiers changing the frame of the nation's political debate. Think about it: when is the last time any Republican used the word "poor" in any political speech? For the life of me, I certainly can't remember it, unless it was some part of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" flim-flam that my subconscious has just completely blocked out.
Which brings me to my main point -- Mitt's explanation for his bad soundbite was extraordinary because it used the framing of Democrats. Mitt is arguing his point on a field created and defended by Democrats -- not the usual Republican language. This is stunning, because Republicans are normally so adept at speaking of just about any issue in their own private terminology. It's also stunning because it is such a losing position for Romney to take.
First, the language. Republicans never say "poor" (as I've already mentioned) much less "very poor." As far as conservatives are concerned, poor people either (1) deserve what they get in life because of their own bad choices, (2) are lazy and cheating the system to get a free ride through life, or (3) are budding conservative heroes, because we all live in a Horatio Alger novel and just need to grasp strongly on those bootstraps and pull.
But Mitt's bigger error wasn't saying "very poor," it was in fact using the term "safety net" -- over and over again. And then doubling down on his error, by promising to "fix the holes" in the safety net, if it "needs repair." This is where Mitt's playing ball on a Democratic field, and not just because it fits in so perfectly with the campaign Barack Obama is teeing up to run, either. Republicans, as a general rule, never speak of the "safety net" unless in seriously derisive terms. They prefer, instead, to speak of the "culture of dependence" or people who use "entitlements" (Marc A. Thiessen has a good example of this over at the Washington Post today, for reference, complete with reverent Ronald Reagan genuflections).
The weakness for Romney is that his statement -- ignoring the gaffe, and giving him all the context he wants us to consider -- is absolutely laughable, on the face of it. This is what comes from playing on the opposition's turf. Because Republicans today are all about "entitlement reform" -- which means, stripped of its own spin, "less money for the safety net." This basic disconnect cannot be reconciled with Romney's statement, no matter how much context we add. It is necessary to commit an act of doublethink to even try. Romney is for Paul Ryan's budget. The Ryan budget shrinks the safety net. So how, exactly, is Romney going to "fix" the safety net? How will making seniors pay an extra $6,000 a year for health insurance do that? How will cutting funds to Medicaid fix things? How is giving the ultra-wealthy (which you also say you're "not concerned with") another round of tax breaks going to fix the safety net, Mitt? Please explain, with figures and budget projections to back your claims up. Anytime you're ready....
These are the questions some intrepid reporter needs to ask Mitt Romney, and soon. Because talking about the "safety net" was Mitt's real "very poor" choice of words. You want to talk about the safety net, Mitt? OK, then let's talk about the safety net -- and your proposals to fix the holes in it. That would, indeed be a conversation worth having. And if the media doesn't ask Mitt, I'm sure Obama eventually will -- the first time they face each other in a debate.
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