The Campaign Spot

Romney Could Defend What He Said . . . but He Probably Won’t

Oh, Mitt, Mitt, Mitt . . . what are we going to do with you?

The entire exchange, lest anyone claim this comment is being taken out of context:

ROMNEY: You know, just let people get to know you better. The nice thing about what happened here in Florida is I got a chance to go across the state, meet with people. They heard what I am concerned about. They understand how I will be able to make things better. I think people want someone who not just throws an incendiary bomb from time to time but someone who actually knows how it takes to improve their life, get home values rising again, to get jobs again in this country, and to make sure when soldiers come home they have a job waiting for them. And make sure people who are retired don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen at the end of the week. This is a time people are worried. They’re frightened. They want someone who they have confidence in. And I believe I will be able to instill that confidence in the American people. And, by the way, 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 the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation. 

O’BRIEN: All right. So I know I said last question, but I’ve 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 are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that? 

ROMNEY: Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. 

O’BRIEN: Got it. OK. 

ROMNEY: The – the challenge right now – we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor, and – 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. My campaign – 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 cannot find work, folks who have kids that are getting ready to go to college. That – these are the people who’ve been 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. 

O’BRIEN: All right. Mitt Romney, congratulations to you on your big victory last night. Thanks for talking with us. appreciate it.

In a race where the president will be running as an all-out populist and fanning the flames of resentment and jealousy against the richest and most successful, this comment seems . . . problematic.

Perhaps the most dispiriting point in all of this is that Romney alludes to a whole bunch of defensible points in this cavalcade of trouble. He could point out that decades of the welfare state have shown us the limits of government efforts to lift up the “very poor.” He could echo Rick Santorum’s points that the most effective way to end poverty is to ensure the poor work, graduate high school, and get married before they have children. He could point out that the Great Recession has impacted middle-income Americans most severely because they had the most to lose; life under the poverty line in 2006 is not terribly different from under the poverty line in 2012. (How many “very poor” face foreclosure? How many “very poor” have lost their retirement savings? How many “very poor” have seen their small businesses fail?) He could point out that Obama has particularly failed to create opportunities for upward mobility, and that endlessly extending unemployment benefits and expanding the eligibility for food stamps is a Band-Aid solution at best, and only increases dependency on government assistance. He could point out that the entire philosophy of the welfare state tends to focus government efforts and resources on the poorest, most troubled, and most needing of help, and often neglects the concerns and needs of those who work hard and play by the rules.

But is there any reason to think Romney will say any of this? I noted a few days ago:

Avik Roy defends the work of Bain ten times better than the candidate himself. Romney’s entire argument against Gingrich’s work at Freddie Mac was based on the work of Tim Carney. Every day, I see better, more compelling arguments for Romney from outside the campaign from within the campaign.

This doesn’t have to be a negative-perception-reinforcing, “I-voted-for-it-before-I-voted-against-it” gaffe. But who believes that the Romney campaign has what it takes to turn the narrative around?

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