Mitt Romney and the Poor
Last night Mitt Romney won the Nevada primary, giving him three of the five states that have voted so far and shortening his odds even more to become the Republican presidential nominee. However, Romney’s campaign has been anything but perfect, and while he has not been as gaffe-prone as Rick Perry, or as simply baffling as Newt Gingrich, the nature of his ‘slips’ has been telling.
On Wednesday, Romney told CNN that he is ‘not concerned about the very poor’. Although he has since made a desperate scramble to claim that he meant his campaign was focusing on the middle class, and that the very poor had a ‘safety net’ to help them, the line cannot be taken as anything other than a catastrophic error from the candidate. John McCormack of the Weekly Standard (no left-wing publication) deemed it possibly ‘the most idiotic thing a politician has ever said’, while the Democrats have pounced upon the statement already to form the basis of a new attack advert.
Romney claims he ‘misspoke’, and supporters cite the pressures of a long and tiring campaign schedule, alongside the confrontational, ever-present media waiting for him to mess up as an excuse. Certainly a few mistakes on the campaign trail can be forgiven, but the problem with Romney is that all of his slip-ups appear to be of the same nature. From joking that he was unemployed to offering Rick Perry a $10,000 bet; from claiming that corporations are people to saying that he likes to fire people; from dismissing $375,000 as ‘not very much’ to saying the foreclosure crisis should be allowed to run its course. To call these mistakes would be to pardon Romney. Rather they are evidence that he is completely out of touch with the common man.
This is why Romney’s ‘not concerned’ comment is so important. With any other candidate, the quote could have been excused as a messy, stumbling attempt to emphasise the importance of the middle class. However, with Romney’s record, it cannot.
When the line is taken in context, it only provides more problems for Romney.
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 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling… 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. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans.
To leave aside, for a moment, the implication that the very poor are not Americans, that he is campaigning only on behalf of the middle class, and that the ‘plight of the poor’ is an exclusively Democrat concern, this quote highlights two very real problems in Romney’s thinking.
First of all, he sees the middle class as a sprawling homogenous group covering 95% of America. While this is ridiculous in itself (the US Census Bureau currently puts the poverty level at 15%), it is dangerous, as it implies a belief that the lot of an American around the 10th percentile will be roughly equivalent to that of an American around the 90th. This type of faulty thinking produces policies that perpetuate and exacerbate inequality. As the DNC has pointed out, ‘his tax plan provides a modest tax cut, about $167, for middle class families but provides about $146,000 for families making more than $1 million’.
The other problem is perhaps more worrying. Romney talks about the very poor and the very rich as if they were equivalent balancing weights on either side of a see-saw. This view allows him to disregard both to ‘focus on middle-income Americans’. However, the spectrum of class is not horizontal. It is vertical, and while the status of each extreme on a horizontal spectrum would be equal (think of the political spectrum – far left vs. far right), the two ends of a vertical spectrum are opposite in status. One cannot simply dismiss ‘the very rich’ and ‘the very poor’ in one category because their cases are in no way equivalent. If the very rich falter, they will still be better off than the vast majority of the country; if the very poor falter, they fall into desperation.
This misapprehension is at the heart of understanding Mitt Romney. He looks at the US and sees an ‘ample safety net’ to preserve the very poor, rather than a system of social provision that will improve their standing, and he sees no problem with this. In a national situation in which even low-income Republicans are claiming the government doesn’t do enough to help the poor, Romney’s misunderstanding of the nature of poverty could cost him the White House.