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Mitt Romney is a good guy. He just doesn’t want you to know it. He tithes. He helps the less fortunate. And, Rick Santorum reports, while volunteering at a homeless shelter, Romney acknowledged that the people there “are used to being ignored. Mostly by people like me.”

But this is the same Romney who said he was “not concerned about the very poor.” Campaign strategists work to exaggerate (or even invent) the virtues of their candidates, so why didn’t we see this real, compassionate, and likeable Romney during the campaign? Perhaps Romney and his advisors didn’t want you to see that better Romney because they didn’t think you would like him. And perhaps they didn’t think you would like him because they didn’t think you were all that bright or compassionate yourself.

In the 1970s and 1980s liberal Democrats were too closely (or maybe too exclusively) associated with the interests of the poor (however defined) and insufficiently interested in the interests of the middle-class (and most people thought of themselves as middle-class). Democrats dealt with this perceived problem not by renouncing the poor, but by focusing their rhetoric on the middle-class.

Romney seems to have thought this problem a Republican advantage. The poor already had Medicaid and food stamps. They were being taken care of, but who was looking out for the middle-class? When Romney ran this combination of middle-class solidarity and lack of interest in the poor through his campaign’s glitchy conservative-to-English translation program (the same one that produced formulations like “severely conservative”) the result was “not very concerned about the poor.”

Santorum describes a Romney who knew that the poor had terrible and continuing problems (though that doesn’t mean that every problem has a government solution). Romney could have talked about how policies that increase economic growth and policies that help people who are marginally attached to the labor market can be complementary. But that wasn’t what Romney thought conservative voters wanted to hear.

This raises a question: How many people heard Romney’s comment and thought, “Well, that’s a relief—now that I know Romney isn’t concerned about the very poor, I feel more comfortable voting for him”? My guess is that the number is approximately zero. Romney’s comment would only be effective if conservative voters take a kind of pride in their indifference to the poorest.

So Romney seems to have assumed the worst about his own voting base. This is not just about one guy who has run his last campaign. This problem shows up among other Republican elites. It shows up when Sarah Palin becomes a prop comic with her big gulp to mock Michael Bloomberg. It shows up when Mike Huckabee (who is allegedly thinking about another presidential race) turns his CPAC speech into a mishmash of truncated talk radio monologues, one-liners, and identity politics shout-outs.

The point isn’t that Romney, Palin, and Huckabee are bad or mean-spirited. Romney is a classic pillar-of-the-community type. Palin was, in her short time, a reforming governor. Unlike with Hillary Clinton (to say nothing of a cipher like John Edwards), it isn’t difficult to create a list of Palin’s significant policy achievements. She successfully worked with her state’s legislature to overhaul government ethics laws and to fix her state’s structural budget deficit. Huckabee was the two-term governor of Arkansas who has been an astute critic of his party’s inability to appeal to people who are at or under the earnings median. They are intelligent and accomplished people who are choosing to play dumb or mean-spirited.

Palin, Romney, and Huckabee have one thing in common when they spew these problematic statements. They are talking down to their audience. They are assuming that their listeners are callous, hostile, shallow, or (most recently) sadistic. This isn’t accurate. Palin has become less popular as she has become more bombastic. Romney did not help himself by talking down to his own voters. He won the Republican nomination by debating well and by running the best organized and best funded campaign.

But Republican politicians and consultants seem to have contempt for conservative voters, which ironically leads politicians to say things that repel persuadable voters and do nothing to energize the conservative base. It would be much better and perhaps even easier for Republican politicians to proceed from the assumption that conservative voters are intelligent and basically decent people rather than greedy, angry brutes. They might even convince some non-conservatives to listen to them. And they might even do a little to undermine the myth that conservatives don’t care for the poor. 

Pete Spiliakos writes for First Thoughts. His previous columns can be found here.

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