The third problem with Mitt Romney’s dumb “I don’t care about the poor” statement

by Ryan Streeter on February 2, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

That Mitt Romney’s “I don’t care about the poor” statement was unhelpful to the GOP’s hopes to retake the White House is something of an understatement.

Criticism from the right began immediately, and it boils down into two basic lines of thought:

1) We’re all getting kind of tired of having to say, “Well, what Mitt really meant was…” The Wall Street Journal editors have expressed this sentiment today, promising to use their pages for what seems like it will be a long-running series on translating Mitt. His comments about firing people and how his speaking fees are chump change, together with his new “poor” comments, add up a tone deafness about which people are right to be worried. Of course everyone knows what he meant to say; they’re just getting tired of having to explain it.

2) ¬†It’s another example of Mitt’s poor grasp of the conservatism he is trying to champion. John McCormack makes this point here. Romney’s the-safety-net-will-catch-them view betrays a flippancy that cuts against the decades of good thought and action by-conservatives to reform safety net programs to promote opportunity. “Tweaking” the safety net so it does a better job of catching the downwardly mobile is pretty bad conservatism.

But there is a third point that hasn’t been made as clearly, which we need to add to the running critique of the GOP’s ultimate nominee:

3) Pretending you can tweak the safety net is the wrong message amidst a time when big segments of the safety net are tied together with our nation’s fiscal mess. I’m referring mainly to Medicaid here. The problem with our safety net is that, in the age of ObamaCare, it is growing dramatically and stretching out to catch the middle class, not just the poor. Expanding Medicaid has been an explicit goal of the Obama team, but paying for it has not. Our safety net is expanding to hold more people in it, and the individual threads are fraying and splitting. There is no tweaking the safety net. It needs to be reformed and rewoven. Since resources are not infinite, a safety net that’s growing to help those up the income ladder means by necessity that help for the truly poor will eventually be limited. You can’t “tweak” our safety net right now. It needs some fundamental reform, starting with Medicaid. ¬†Given Romney’s relative silence on these issues, his statement once again makes him sound like a guy who’s detached from the reality he’s talking about.

UPDATE: Pew has some numbers out today showing that the one-quarter of Republicans earning below $30,000 annually might not think too kindly of Romney’s comments. It’s worth noting that, unsurprisingly for those of us who keep an eye on political typology, that lower-income Republicans have as much disregard for the government as higher-income folks. Which I suppose is doubly bad for Romney, since they probably don’t appreciate being told that Romney is entrusting them happily to the care of the safety net…