Add class warfare to the list of contemporary political skills that Mitt Romney hasn’t quite mastered.
In a mere 18 hours, he managed first to step on his big Florida primary win with a lollapalooza of gaffes, declaring that he “was not concerned about the very poor.” Then, in the classic GOP style of doubling down on stupid to overcompensate for any hint of a compassion deficit, he called for raising the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation. Gee, Mitt, just for inflation? Why not double or maybe even quintuple the minimum wage?
Such are the perils for a pandering pol, paddling the swirls of the welfare state without a constitutional compass. It should go without saying — although it won’t — that Mitt didn’t really mean to blow off the poor. In the now-notorious CNN interview, he was quick to explain that the poor are not a priority only because we already “have a safety net.” Perfect: While arming the Left with a luscious sound bite with which to caricature him as a callous vulture capitalist, Romney simultaneously stokes the Right’s fear that he is really a man of the Left — or, at least, a man without a core, who doesn’t get that the welfare state is not the solution but the problem.
Romney being Romney, the first problem panicked him, while the second probably hasn’t even occurred to him — and won’t, unless Gingrich or Santorum surges and a little Tea Party stroking is suddenly in order. So, within hours of the CNN fiasco, Mitt shifted into “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” mode
and got jiggy with the minimum wage.
Beloved of the Democrat-academe-media axis, and thus impressed on the craven Republican establishment, the minimum wage is the safety net in small compass. Whatever wage Romney would nominally make the minimum, the actual minimum wage will remain zero. As the Club for Growth’s Chris Chocola countered, the minimum wage is “an absolute job killer.” To appreciate why, read Kevin D. Williamson’s powerful essay, “Keeping Blacks Poor” (NR, February 2010 – linked here): In one fell swoop, this exhibition in government compassion not only prices low-productivity workers out of the labor market but stokes a crisis of permanent joblessness in some of America’s poorest areas.
It is, of course, impossible that a businessman as savvy as Mitt Romney does not grasp the wages of the minimum wage. He is pandering. He is the GOP establishment candidate. The establishment does not believe electoral success lies in winning voters over with the strength of conservative ideas. Elections, such Republicans believe, are won by batting your eyes at conservatives while planting your feet in the regnant progressive consensus. They are won by saying, “I care.”
Mitt does care. Really. The eye-popping $7 million he has given away to charity in the last two years dwarfs what most of the “rich,” as defined by President Obama, will gross over a decade or three. It certainly compares quite favorably to the beneficence of Senator John Kerry, the well-heeled 2004 nominee of the Poor People’s Party, whose tax returns tended to show a big fat zero on the charitable-donation line. But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? We are a compassionate society because of what ordinary Americans, whatever their means, can be relied on to give of themselves. “Compassion” is not what politicians do with other people’s money.
Where he most craves it, Romney will get no credit for his good works and no acknowledgement of the true intent behind his clumsy words. Progressive operatives are interested only in an edge, not a discussion. The rest of the “social justice” crowd figures that if you’re going to vote feelings rather than economics, then you might as well go with the other guys — they’re the pros. So unfortunately for Mitt, he’s stuck with us Regressives. Yes, we’ll put his faux pas in context and give his good intentions their due. But we’ll also tell you that Mitt Romney, the would-be president, could learn a lot from Mitt Romney, the virtuous citizen — that is, the typically American citizen.
We’ve now had 19 Republican debates, exploring the contestants’ views on everything from Gardasil vaccines to deep-dish pizza. Yet not a single journalist has thought to ask the most important question for a presidential candidate in a constitutional-republic-turned-welfare-state teetering on the brink of financial ruin: “What exactly does the Constitution authorize the federal government to do in order to ‘provide for the . . . general Welfare of the United States’”?
This clause appears in the preamble of Article I, Section 8. Its meaning was fraught with controversy until seemingly settled when FDR, threatening to pack the Supreme Court, cowed the justices into signing off on the New Deal. Progressives insisted the General Welfare Clause was a sweeping grant, citing Hamilton as their champion of omnipotent, centralized government. Though this distorted Hamilton’s notion of general welfare (which was not robbing Peter to pay Paul), the Left maintains that Leviathan is empowered to tax and spend for any ostensibly humanitarian purpose.
Not so. As James Madison explained, the Constitution was designed to limit government. The General Welfare Clause is not an open-ended license to enact someone’s transient notion of humanitarian good — particularly at someone else’s expense. Were that the case, the federal government would gradually eviscerate state sovereignty and usurp the liberties of the people. (See, e.g., the last 70 years.)
The General Welfare Clause, like its companion summons to “provide for the common Defense,” is merely the preamble’s framing of the high purpose behind Section 8’s carefully enumerated powers, which follow. The central government may provide for the general welfare only by those powers: to regulate commerce, see to the integrity of the currency, establish standards for naturalization, raise and equip the armed forces, and so on. If it is not spelled out in Section 8, it is not the federal government’s job — and there is nothing in there about Uncle Sam insuring our retirements, socializing medical care, or dictating a minimum wage.
It is not that Madison was “not concerned about the very poor.” He and the framers were simply possessed of a basic bit of wisdom that eludes us sophisticated moderns: The strength and genius of America lie in its people, not its government. Government, though necessary, tends to corruption, factional self-dealing, and sloth — especially as it gets more distant from the lives it affects.
In a country virtuous enough to produce citizens as civic-minded as Mitt Romney, caring for the very poor — like setting fair wages, educating the young, treating the sick, providing for the aged, achieving “the dream of home ownership,” deciding whether to have the salad or the fries, and the rest of life’s limitless desiderata — is best left to the people. They won’t need a government for most things because they and their private institutions will do a better job; and on those matters where government intervention makes sense, keeping it local is much more likely to keep it responsive, accountable, and affordable.
A few debates ago, Governor Romney wisely said he was proud of the taxes he’d paid because he’d surrendered only what was “legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as a candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.” Mitt the citizen knew the millions he’d given to charity, despite not being legally required, did far more for the general welfare than the millions confiscated by Washington. Hopefully, Mitt the candidate will figure that out, too. Then, to prove his concern for the very poor, he’ll explain that dismantling the welfare state is the start of compassion, not the end.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.