On poverty, Mitt Romney is the wrong messenger with the right message

Mitt Romney has rebranded himself “authentic,” which is perhaps the least authentic thing you could do. In the process, however, he has embraced a policy approach that conservative commentators have been begging Republicans to adopt for years: Focus on poverty, inequality, and lower rather than simply middle-class economics.

“The only policies that will reach into the hearts of American people and pull people out of poverty, and break the cycle of poverty are Republican principles, conservative principles,” Romney told a gathering of Republican National Committee attendees earlier this month. “They include family formation, and education and good jobs, and we’re going to bring them to the American people and finally end the scourge of poverty in this great land.”

“Rather than meet his comments with applause or even intrigue, to liberals, Romney’s ‘sudden’ interest in reducing poverty (which isn’t all that sudden if his philanthropic generosity is any indication) is neither welcome nor believable and should therefore be summarily dismissed,” the columnist S.E. Cupp observed.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who can apparently read Romney’s mind, declared his desire to want to lower poverty “disingenuous.”

Washington Post writer Catherine Rampell totally distorted Romney’s infamous “47%” comments for full effect on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”:

“The last time he ran . . . he said ‘it’s not my job to care about those people.’ His job description has changed apparently. Now he’s saying we should really be caring about the poor, the middle class, the poor.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that liberal Democrats believe that only liberal Democrats are endowed with the powers of empathy required to both understand and address poverty issues. Though they fail to produce results, they are content to insist that their intentions are at least more righteous than those of their opponents.

When Republicans encroach on policy areas that Democrats believe it is their providential birthright to monopolize – be it poverty, or minority issues, or criminal justice reforms – the Pavlovian response from the left is often spasmodic fits of jeering. Liberals threatened by conservative triangulation have no more potent defense than to work up a haughty and hollow laugh at Republicans’ expense, the supposed joke being that the GOP doesn’t truly care about the plight of traditionally Democratic constituencies. The jest may not be especially funny, but you will be made to laugh under penalty of social ostracism.

And that is what we’re seeing today in response to Romney’s nascent anti-poverty platform. Not only have figures like de Blasio and the gang at Morning Joe joined in on the act, but no less a figure than the President of the United States is busting Democratic guts over Romney’s impertinent appropriation of a traditionally liberal issue.

President Obama poked fun at former rival Mitt Romney and leading Republicans on Thursday, saying the GOP’s rhetoric on the economy was “starting to sound pretty Democratic.”

At the House Democratic Caucus retreat in Philadelphia, Obama noted that a “former Republican presidential candidate” was “suddenly, deeply concerned about poverty.”

“That’s great! Let’s go do something about it!” Obama added in a not-so-veiled jab at Romney, who is now testing the presidential waters and vowing to focus more on the issue of poverty this time around.

All that purported humor masks a weakness; Romney would not be able to make poverty an issue if it were not a glaring Democratic failure. Taking to his Twitter account late Thursday night, Romney shot off a succinct 140 character retort:

He’s right. Today, about 50 million Americans live below the poverty line, defined in 2013 as an annual income of $23,550 for a family of four. “About four in 10 black children live in poverty; for Hispanic children, that figure is about three in 10,” New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey observed. “Acceding to one recent study, as of mid-2011, in any given month, 1.7 million households were living on cash income of less than $2 a person a day, with the prevalence of the kind of deep poverty commonly associated with developing nations increasing since the mid-1990s.”

That’s not very funny. But when you fail to advance solutions, all you can hope to do is circle the wagons and feign amusement over those who make note of your obvious failings.

So, good for Mitt Romney for making poverty a Republican issue. His quip on Twitter was a good line, and it might have resonated in 2012. But it’s not 2012, and Barack Obama isn’t going to be on the ballot in two years.

During a conference call with supporters on Friday, Romney is widely expected to reveal his intention to mount a third presidential campaign. He will be doing so in spite of significant resistance from the right-leaning commentary class and only lukewarm support among members of the Republican primary electorate. Romney may be talking like a formidable candidate, but he remains a suboptimal vehicle for advancing a populist Republican agenda.

In 2012, Romney declined to engage Obama on a variety of fronts. The former Massachusetts governor abstained from campaigning against the Affordable Care Act because of his own record of supporting health care reform – a weakness that has only grown more damaging to Romney’s political prospects in the interim as volumes of impolitic remarks from former MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber have since been uncovered. Romney was repeatedly snake bit by unfavorable press coverage of his “gaffes,” be they real (the “47 percent”) or entirely fabricated (“Romneyshambles”). He failed to make inroads with an electorate that had endured four years of recession because he so often failed to defend his convictions.

Outside the arena of international affairs, the GOP’s 2012 nominee rarely made a forceful case for why his presidency would differ dramatically from Obama’s. When Romney and the president sparred, it was largely a competition to see who could craft the most media-friendly sound bite and earn the respect of late night comedians who might dub it a laudable “burn.” Those who think Romney will suddenly take the fight over poverty issues to Hillary Clinton despite the voters’ impression of him as an aloof plutocrat are being twice fooled. Romney cannot make that case – the press and the popular culture will not allow him to, and he is simply not combative enough to talk over their heads and take his argument to the broader public.

It didn’t take much to bait to goad Mitt Romney into a good old round of dueling sound bites, and that is probably what Republican voters would be asking for if they nominated Romney again. The former Bay State governor may not have changed in the last two years, but the Republican Party he once sought to lead has. It seems highly unlikely that the former GOP nominee will be able to convince Republicans to give Romney’s 2012 act a reprise.

Update: Mitt Romney has revealed he will decline to mount a 2016 presidential bid. Republicans better suited to the mission of redirecting the nation should adopt his vision on poverty.