Nearly three years after he famously said he was “not concerned about the very poor,” former presidential nominee Mitt Romney told Republicans in a speech Friday night the party must focus on helping “lift people out of poverty.”
Welcome to Mitt 3.0: The Mitt who cares.
His comments on the very poor—not to mention the 47 percent—may have played a major role in his 2012 loss, but don’t tell that to Romney. The issue is now among the hottest debates in politics—and he seems determined to be part of that conversation.
Of the three topics the Romney stressed in his brief address to the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting—during which he also confirmed he was thinking about a third campaign for president—two had to do with the less fortunate.
“First, we have to make the world safer,” Romney said. “Second, we have to make sure and provide opportunity for all Americans regardless of the neighborhood they live in. And finally, we have to lift people out of poverty. If we communicate those three things effectively, the American people are going to be with us—be with our nominee and with our candidates across the country.”
But why the change of tone?
Over the past three years, the issue has changed in ways that favor a more progressive approach. The poverty rate has actually gone down since Mitt 2.0—the economy fixer—lost the race in 2012.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the official poverty rate went from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013. The last time the poverty rate dipped below 15 percent was in 2006. That’s not to say things have gotten markedly better, the number of people in poverty—45.3 million—has remained statistically the same.
This problem is hardly a new issue. The poverty rate was on the rise in 2007, when Romney first ran for president as Mitt 1.0—the Conservative. But even though it spiked from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 13.2 percent in 2008, only then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) chose to make the issue a centerpiece of his campaign.
But one thing that has changed is public opinion on the issue. Recent polling shows a more compassionate country when it comes to the poor. A June 2014 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed fewer people blamed the poor for their financial situation. When asked “which is the bigger cause of poverty today?”, 46 percent of those polled attributed poverty to “circumstances beyond people’s control” as opposed to 44 percent who blamed “people not doing enough.” In 1995, 60 percent blamed “people not doing enough” for their poverty, while 30 percent blamed “circumstances beyond people’s control.”
Back in 2012, it wasn’t as if the Romney campaign completely ignored the poor—poverty was a key issue for his then-running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Romney, himself, routinely talked of the rising number of people on food stamps and other government programs as evidence President Obama’s economic policies weren’t working.
But it was what he said behind closed-doors that caused any poverty message he tried to ring hollow. His campaign was never able to shake his comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax made during a Florida fundraiser.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” Romney told a group of donors during a closed door meeting. “These are people who pay no income tax. … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
When a recording of his remarks leaked, it became a public relations disaster for Romney, solidifying the image of him as an out of touch millionaire in the minds of voters. Even after he lost the 2012 race, Romney doubled down during a call with donors, blaming the Obama administration for giving special interest groups—like African Americans, Hispanics and young people—“gifts” to get their vote, according to the New York Times.
“In each case, they were very generous in what they gave to those groups,” Romney said, according to the Times.
He blamed the so-called gifts for overshadowing his campaign about “big issues for the whole country: military strategy, foreign policy, a strong economy, creating jobs and so forth.”
With wages stuck in neutral for many, poverty and income inequality will likely be a major issue of the 2016 campaign. But Republicans have to think—is Mitt the guy they want talking about it?