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To say that Mitt Romney is getting a lot of flak for a comment he made yesterday concerning the “very poor” is an understatement. Liberals have seized on this statement as the latest in a series of ever-worsening gaffes, gleeful that Romney is doing all the work for them as he paints himself as the “out of touch multimillionaire” and an unelectable candidate against President Obama during a time when public opinion is against America’s Rich Uncle Pennybagses. (At least Mr. Pennybags made his money buying properties. There is no mention of laying off workers, and I’m sure even he would scoff at a 13.9% tax rate.) Even conservatives have jumped ship on this comment, embarrassed that their candidate of choice has fumbled so definitively. After being given multiple opportunities to clarify his statement, he didn’t backpedal. This is the new Mitt Romney, flip flopper characterizations be damned!
I’d like to say a bit in Mitt Romney’s defense. This may come off more as an offense against the media than a defense of Romney, but I do feel like he’s getting unfairly beaten up over this statement, as well as some others made regarding interpretations of his wealth. If we are to criticize the candidate on anything he said, it shouldn’t be the fact that he said “I don’t care about the very poor” (or “the very rich”, as he qualified) or the fact that he said “We will hear about the plight of the poor from the Democrat Party”. (The fact that the perfectly polished Romney said Democrat, not Democratic, is probably a sign that he was tired and stressed, and maybe we should realize that no candidate is actually perfect.)
To be sure, Romney’s statement was meant to emphasize his apparent commitment to the middle class in America. (This particular pandering might not actually be sincere, but for the sake of argument, let’s take Romney at his word.) This focus on the middle class is a popular stance for a presidential candidate to make, and is, in fact, the same one that President Obama has been making since 2007. While Obama’s policies—both in theory and in execution have done much more for America’s poor than any of the Republican candidates have ever pledged to do—Obama is still a mainly middle class-focused president. And why not? The middle class is how you win elections. It is politically expedient to aim your rhetoric toward those who believe in social mobility and who largely see themselves as having the desire and the ability to improve their station in life. One of the most enduring tenets of history is that revolutions are made by the middle class, not sustained by the peasantry or the lower classes. I’ve taken a lot of history classes; take that, Newt Gingrich! Basically, while the middle class is undeniably shrinking, it still consists of the majority of Americans and remains the largest voting bloc of the electorate. By all economic estimates, a thriving middle class is necessary to restore the country’s economy.
So there’s nothing wrong with speaking to the needs of the middle class. I think the issue at hand is that people are disturbed by Romney’s stated focus on the middle class seemingly at the exclusion—or to the detriment of—the “very poor”. He said that those who fall into this category have a social safety net, and if the safety net has holes in it, he will work to fix them. On its face, there is nothing wrong with this statement either. The real problem comes when one reads into this statement in context. Romney claimed that his statement was taken out of context. If you listen to all he says, and consider that the context, you are not really understanding the full scope. Republicans—Romney included—have made it their unequivocally stated goal to cut social programs for the poor and remove or tremendously weaken the social safety net, claiming that the United States government has bred an “entitlement society”. The kind of Ayn Rand, individualistic, I don’t give a shit about other people and I don’t live in a society where I’ve actually ever relied on anyone and I ignore the fact that there is undeniable historical evidence that cooperation equals prosperity, thinking is further qualified by the idea that “with the mounting debt, we can’t afford to spend this kind of money”. Translated into simple English without the spin, the Republican candidates are willing to kill poor people and doom them to suffering. Maybe that sounds like fear mongering, but it’s absolutely true.
Problem number one: Mitt Romney is disingenuous when he claims that he will fix the social safety net. Also, how about trying to help people out of poverty? Romney cares much more about his corporate donors and bigwig buddies than the poor. No one should be fooling themselves. But we knew all this before this statement, so the gasps and outrage are surprising. Suddenly everyone realizes?
Problem number two: Romney stated that 90-95% of American people are middle class. He had stated on a previous occasion that 80-90% of people are middle class. Neither of these figures is correct. This is why people get upset when Romney includes himself in these figures and when he jokes that he, too, is unemployed. Romney seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what middle class means. Taking this further, if he truly sees himself as middle class, then he has no idea how the vast majority of the country’s population lives. Those figures should have been the real focus of criticism, not the semi-tactless statements he made.
Problem number three: Liberals are hurt that Romney likened the poverty issue to a Democratic issue. While the “plight of the poor” should definitely not be a partisan issue, this is not the point. Hearing Cenk Uygur rail on about how he, as a Democrat, shouldn’t be marginalized and “this guy” (Romney) is ridiculous just makes him—and other media representatives like him—seem self absorbed and immature.
Who doesn’t love a talking point? The media has survived on them since at least last May, when the Republican candidates started taking the 2012 presidential race seriously. The problem with this is that the focus becomes things like Romney’s $10,000 bet moment, not actual analysis of any of the candidates’ policy proposals. I personally don’t think the $10,000 bet was that big of a deal. We know Romney’s rich. We know he wouldn’t actually bet. He’s said plenty of other incendiary things that actually have potential for application, things that would hurt the poor—and anyone who couldn’t afford a $10,000 bet—far more than that debate moment. I get it, though: All of these moments are heuristics used to judge a candidate’s “character”, and we should know who we’re voting for. How about we don’t hound Romney relentlessly for every slightly awkward statement he makes, and instead, hold him—as well as every other candidate—to account for their actual positions and demand concrete plans from our potential leaders? Then, feel free to tear them apart. At least that would be productive.