Romney's 'not concerned about the very poor' comment bad for wrong reasons

Mitt Romney clearly stumbled when he told a reporter earlier this week that he was “not concerned about the very poor, because they have a safety net.” 

Almost immediately, the national press (not to mention the Obama administration) pounced on the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.  To no one’s surprise, all suggested that Romney’s reply was typical of a multimillionaire who doesn’t care about the downtrodden.  (The remarks were taken out of context, as the former Massachusetts governor also said of the safety net a few minutes later: “…if it has holes in it, I will repair them.”

But as loud as the outrage was from Democrats and the liberal media over Romney’s “safety net” comment, it was matched in volume and rage from conservatives—for other reasons.

Romney, as one disappointed caller to HUMAN EVENTS put it, “missed the whole point about the poor and the safety net, period.”

Alan Levine, health secretary to Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and formerly the top health care official in Florida under former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush (for whom he also worked as deputy chief of staff), told us that Romney’s remark was “a self-inflicted wound.”

 “He could have said that people are too reliant on government funded programs for the poor and the idea is to decrease them and give people opportunity,” said Levine.

Levine recalled how “Jeb Bush turned the entire establishment on its head” with his efforts to put social and relief programs more in the hands of the private sector “and give people an opportunity to improve their lives.”  In Bush’s second inaugural address as governor in 2003, he said, the Republican governor indicated the government office buildings (in Tallahassee) behind him “and said his vision was that they are empty someday.”

 “Gov. Bush took a lot of heat for saying that,” said Levine, “but he never backed down.  His goal was less government and more opportunity for people to determine their own behavior.” (By way of disclosure, Levine told us he supported Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination.)

Conservatives on the national level voiced similar sentiments about Romney’s remarks to HUMAN EVENTS.

“He was playing T-Ball and got a slow pitch, but he acted as though it were a fastball and whiffed it,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told us, “This would have been an opportunity to say people were made poor by government programs and kept poor by Barack Obama, and they need the opportunity to get jobs and get out of poverty.”

That this response wasn’t “on the tip of his tongue,” added Norquist, “is a strong suggestion that he doesn’t know what Ronald Reagan would have done.  And that’s disturbing.” (Norquist has remained neutral in the race and pointed out that Romney, like the three other Republican hopefuls, has signed ATR’s no-tax pledge.)

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, a strong conservative who briefly sought the ’08 Republican nomination, agreed.

 “Gov. Romney certainly didn’t intend to be abusive, but it was not a well-spoken reply,” said Gilmore, who has endorsed Romney and donated money to his campaign. “But he should have said we need an agenda to get everyone working, make them independent, and not so dependent on government programs. That’s what I believe we as conservatives should believe.”

There were somewhat different reactions to Romney’s “safety net” statement and profession of concern for the middle class.  One came from freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), one of the leading tea party House Members and someone whose past battles with debt and near-foreclosure of his home were aired in his upset race last year.

 “As with the comment ‘I like to fire people,’ [Romney] could have found a much cleaner way to say ‘I don’t care about poor people,’” Walsh told us. “But my thoughts are twofold: I know what he was trying to say which is that his focus is going to be on helping the great middle of America, which has been crushed by Obama, and it doesn’t matter to me if he has never bellied up to the bar in a good working class neighborhood and knows that world.  He knows how to help folks who live in that world by cutting their taxes and getting government out of the way with a pro-growth agenda so we can create jobs. That’s what’s important. Obama has lost Middle America. This election will be all about him.”