Everyone’s having a grand old time mocking Mitt Romney for finally “admitting”: “I’m not very concerned about the very poor.” The quotation has been bandied about as proof that Romney is a greedy, unfeeling capitalist. And, in a presidential campaign which emphasizes optics over good sense, Romney has already retreated, saying he “misspoke.”
In fairness, the quotation was taken out of context. Romney said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America—the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” In other words, Romney did not intend to convey contempt for the poor. He was saying that there are programs dedicated to protecting the poor but it is the middle class that is being completely ignored.
This “gaffe” and Romney’s other rich-related verbal stumbles recall the unhappy political career of Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s linguistically challenged vice president, who was dismissed as stupid for all kinds of doozies. Remember the time, when he was in Hawaii, and said, "When I meet with world leaders, what's striking—whether it's in Europe or here in Asia..." even though Hawaii’s a chain of islands far from the Asian land mass, and is at best called Oceania. Or the time he said, "We're the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad" when it was the transcontinental railroad. Or the time he said, “The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries.” Or, my personal favorite, the time he said in Beaverton, Oregon: “I've now been in 57 states—I think one left to go.”
Don’t remember Dan Quayle saying these? Well, you're right—it was Barack Obama. These and other verbal pratfalls, compiled by Daniel Kurtzman, are not all that well-known. This is because even his opponents agree that Barack Obama is smart and eloquent. When he stumbles, most people understand that anyone forced to talk as often as he is before cameras is bound to make the occasional error.
Romney on the wealth issue, and Quayle on the intelligence issue, ran into what I call the “O-Ring Factor.” Just as that particular part on the space shuttle Challenger eroded only because of specific weather conditions, most gaffes only stick where politicians are vulnerable. Obama is rarely tongue-tied, so he can get away with the occasional vocabulary or linguistic malfunction. But reporters and rivals loved questioning Quayle’s intelligence, just as reporters and rivals are now enjoying questioning Romney’s sensitivity to the other 99.9 percent of Americans less wealthy than he is.
Unfortunately, such pouncing comes at a price. It sets candidates on edge, making all of them even more superficial and artificial. None of us would fare very well with cameras recording our every statement. This campaign is seeking a chief executive not a robot. Let’s have an honest debate about the impact of Romney’s wealth on his worldview—but spare us this tomfoolery, or Dan Quaylery.