Mitt Romney’s 'Not Concerned About the Very Poor' Gaffe Shows He's Not a True Conservative

On Wednesday, Mitt Romney stated on CNN that he is unconcerned about “the very poor.” Unlike with former gaffes, Romney backtracked from his remarks within a day, claiming that he “misspoke.” Romney’s decision to distance himself from his most recent gaffe suggests that, perhaps, there is something indefensible about his remarks, something he cannot flippantly chalk up to a simple lack of context.

What is so potentially damaging about Romney’s latest gaffe is that it not only strikes at the heart of a progressive conception of government, but, oddly enough, also strikes at the heart of a conservative conception. A quick deconstruction of Romney’s remarks reflects the fact that he just might be the moderate Republican that conservatives (and liberals alike) fear him to be.

Below is Romney’s statement, a sentence or two at a time: 

And by the way, I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. 

From the outset, Romney distinguishes between Americans (generally) and poor Americans (in particular). What follows from these two sentences is that one cannot be both poor and American. Most likely, Romney did not intend such a conclusion; yet, by making impossible – even if only subconsciously – the identifier of “poor American,” Romney marginalizes the poor. This marginalization stands in sharp contrast to a progressive view of society – a view that not only believes poor people are a part of American society but also that the poorest among us should be ensured certain protections by the government. But in the next sentence, he seems to offer a clarification of sorts.

We have a safety net there; if it needs repair, I’ll fix it.

Here, Romney seems to be arguing that his lack of concern for the very poor stems from his understanding that the very poor are already protected by the government through social programs. In fact, he even states that if the safety net needs repair, he will fix it. Given the context, it appears that Romney is arguing for the continuance of social programs – something that Newt Gingrich and other Republicans have spent the past few months berating President Obama and liberals for supporting. Here, Romney strikes against a conservative view of the proper role of government.

I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America – the, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling. 

Romney concludes with his main concern, those whom he terms the “very heart of America” and classifies as the 90-95 percent of Americans who are struggling. While his percentages may be a little off, it is evident that he is referring to middle income Americans. His concern, then, is the concern of just about every moderate politician: the middle-class, however ill-defined.

While Romney’s gaffe appears to be extreme at first glance, a closer look reveals that it is at best moderate, and at worst borderline bipolar. And in a Republican primary that feeds off the rhetoric of conservative extremism, Romney knows that those are the last two things a desperate Republican electorate is searching for. As such, it's no wonder that he has already tried to distance himself from his very poor remarks.

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