02/02/2012 01:25 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

Romney in the Safety Net Hot Seat

Head cocked to one side, CNN's Starting Point anchor Soledad O'Brien seemed genuinely befuddled. Riding a fresh wave of momentum following what could be described as a rather sweeping, 14-point primary victory in Florida on Jan. 31, had Mitt Romney said what O'Brien though he'd said? Did Mitt Romney, of Bain Capital super wealth, just say he "wasn't concerned about the very poor"?

It had been a fairly uneventful morning interview, with an affable Soledad asking the contender several less-than-pointed questions about negative ad campaigns and the upcoming primaries. Saving the best for last, apparently, Soledad brought up a recent poll, conducted last week by the Pew Research Center, showing that 55 percent of Americans surveyed felt President Obama understood the problems of average people "very well," as compared to 39 percent for Romney.

The survey dovetailed with conservative columnist Kathleen Parker's column on Jan. 31, in which she wrote that Romney's apparent perfection -- embodied by the fact that he is "handsome, rich and successful," "father to five strapping sons" and most importantly, that "at the end of a long day of campaigning, his hair hasn't moved" -- makes it hard for us flawed mortals to relate to him.

Soledad was pitching to Romney underhand (slow pitch) at this point, and all Romney had to do was roll out his Everyman, Joe the Plumber, "I'm just like you" spiel, before returning to his tour bus for a champagne-soaked victory lap.

He was so close.

"This is a time people are frightened, they are worried, they want someone who they have confidence in, and I think I believe I will be able to install that confidence in the American people..."

Stop while you're ahead, Mitt.

"...And, by the way, I'm in this race because I care about Americans..."

Think about your five strapping sons, Mitt.

"...I'm not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. "

Although safely off-camera, you could just hear Soledad's eyebrows shooting off of her forehead. An intern almost lost an eye.

Romney went on to say he would, of course, fix any holes found in said safety net. Nothing if not equal opportunity, the former governor revealed he was equally unconcerned with the very rich, the job creators, as it were, who are surprisingly "doing just fine." "I'm concerned about the very heart of America, " the former governor continued, "the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."

A follow-up perhaps is needed here, Soledad?

"I know I said last question," the anchor improvised, "But I got to ask you, you just said, 'I'm not concerned about the very poor, because they have a safety net.' And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who area struggling who would say, that sounds odd. Can you explain that?"

It was hard to discern, beneath all of the layers of smugness and spray tan, but Romney may have blanched, ever so slightly. Recovering his smile quickly, he did what every self-respecting conservative would do in that situation, and mildly accused the media elite of twisting his words.

"Finish the sentence, Soledad," he said, with just a hint of that handsome, blue-blooded patronizing. "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. "

Thanks for clarifying that.

I'd be more inclined to overlook the comment, ridiculous as it was, if Romney wasn't in fact campaigning on what could be described as a fairly anti-safety net platform. History is on my side here. It's simply a fact that in times of fiscal belt-tightening, Republican presidents are far more inclined to cut, I mean "reform," the types of social service programs that create the so-called safety net in the first place.

All the 2012 hopefuls are doing it. Rick Santorum proposes a five-year freeze on spending levels for "entitlement" programs such as Medicaid, affordable housing, job training and food stamps. Santorum, along with the ever-evolving Newt Gingrich, also favors a plan sponsored by Congressman Paul Ryan that would convert Medicaid to a block grant system, give states responsibility over payments and eligibility, and cutting federal funding sharply. Barring a miraculously generous contribution from states, the resulting restructuring would adversely affect care for tens of millions of low-income beneficiaries nationwide.

The concept of a safety net is lost on conservatives hell bent on depicting President Obama as an enabler of lazy government dependents constantly on the lookout for a handout. Who could forget Gingrich's ovation-earning "food stamp king" taunt during the Jan. 16 presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.? The safety net has become fodder for political putdowns.

And Romney's concession to Soledad that "There's no question it's not good being poor," doesn't even come close to addressing the problem. Census data indicates that 49.1 million Americans live below the poverty line, currently hovering below $23,000 dollars a year for a family of four. That's over 15 percent of the population, and raises the question, for those of you keeping track at home, of what Romney meant when he labeled 90-95 percent of the country as "the heart of America."

For these millions of families, the safety net is already fast becoming a sieve.

A survey of 29 cities released in December by the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed a serious shortage in emergency food aid -- 27 percent of people in need never received help -- as well as an increased demand for food assistance.

Romney's comments betrayed so much more than an unfortunate instance of momentary tone deafness. Sticking up for the rights of the working middle classes is a good thing. Everyone knows the middle is struggling. But by choosing rhetoric over empathy, Romney betrayed a key failing of his campaign, and one that the Obama camp would be smart to exploit in the coming months. The very poor are not a tiny subset of the population, tucked out of sight in housing projects and homeless shelters. They are 50 million voters strong.