For a guy who is widely known as disciplined and methodical, Mitt Romney sure does utter a lot of gaffes. And I use the term "gaffe" not in the Michael Kinsley sense (when a politician inadvertently tells the truth), but in the sense of a statement that reinforces the supposed character flaw reporters have identified as the candidate's Achilles' Heel, whether the prevailing interpretation was actually what the candidate was trying to say or not. Romney can barely go a week without uttering some awful statement that makes his aides wince as it shows him to be just the patrician, out-of-touch capitalist overlord his opponents paint him to be (I listed a bunch here). Since I'm on record arguing that gaffes almost never actually reveal anything new about a candidate, I suppose I should be defending Romney right now, since he has spent the last day being pummeled for saying, "I'm not concerned about the very poor," since "we have a safety net there." Mitt just makes it so hard.
I'll give it a shot, though. This doesn't give us some new insight into the content of Mitt Romney's heart, though we have precious little evidence of what beats there anyway. Do we now know, despite what he's said before, that Mitt Romney does not actually care about poor people? No. The truth is that if you look at the policies he proposes, he never seemed to care much about the very poor in the first place. Like his Republican opponents, most of Romney's emphasis is on what we can do to help those at the top—reducing regulations on business, cutting taxes for the wealthy (although it should be noted that on that score, his opponents' tax plans do even more for the rich than his), and so on. It isn't as though he's been a strong advocate for the poor until now, but we overheard a private conversation in which he revealed his disdain for them. So the proper response should probably be: Mitt Romney isn't concerned about the poor? What else is new?
Of course, Romney was trying to argue that he's focused on helping the middle class, although he bizarrely seems to believe that 90 percent of Americans are middle class. You could say that Romney's apparent belief that the safety net makes things copacetic for the poor—once you've got Medicaid and food stamps, it's easy street!—is just more evidence of how clueless he is about the challenges millions of Americans face. And you'd probably be right. And if we want to have a debate about poverty in America, that'd be great.
But guess what: Barack Obama doesn't want to have that debate any more than Mitt Romney does. He talks about the middle class a lot as well. Of course, his policies are far more friendly to poor people than Romney's would be, but he knows that characterizing the Democratic Party as an advocate for the poor isn't an electoral winner.
That doesn't mean you have to feel sympathy for Mitt Romney as he squirms around trying to show that he does actually care about people who are struggling. So far, he has run a campaign of unusual dishonesty, regularly just making things up about his opponents and especially President Obama, so there's some poetic justice in him getting skewered with his own words. Even if those words tell us nothing more than what we already know.
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