Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Romney, Government, and the Very Poor

Last week, Mitt Romney continued to roll inescapably towards the Republican nomination, much to no-one's surprise and the consternation of social conservatives everywhere.  Romney's a well oiled machine, capable as a speaker, smart and difficult to ruffle in a debate.  He presents the competent, distant benevolence of an early 1960s sitcom dad, arriving at 5:15 sharp from The Place Where Grownups Live, ready to sit down with Wally and the Beav to offer the final and definitive word on whatever sepia-toned hijinks have ensued.

It's unusual for him to slip, allowing that identity...not a facade, I'm convinced it goes deeper than that with Mitt...to be dinged.   Last week's wanderings into whether a president should be concerned about the very poor were such a slip.   Romney's statement in its entirety can be found here, and read in completeness, it is more nuanced than blood-in-the-water punditry would have you believe.   It is also utterly comprehensible in the calculus of politics in a democracy.  The key to winning an election in a democratic society is the same key you use to win a game of chess.  If you take the center of the board, you are likely to win.

Romney is money and a patrician.  What is he is not is stupid.  He understands that dynamic.  And so when he says that his concern is not with the very rich (who can take care of themselves) or the very poor (who have a "safety net"), but with everyday folks like you and me, he's speaking from the strategic heart of consumer politics.

There is a difference, though, between what is politically advantageous and what constitutes good governance.  The validity of a state rests on the ability of that state to protect the interests of its constituent citizens.  The provision of infrastructure, both physical and regulatory, is a significant part of that validity.

But when you get down to the bone and gristle of the thing, states provide protection.  It's what they do.

States protect against attack from "outside."  If rapacious hordes of flannel-clad Quebecois came pouring across the border to menace us with their strange twangy French, it would be the responsibility of our state to defend us.

But states also stand as protection against uncertainty from within.  The measure of a good state is that within its borders, you will not go cold or starve or die abandoned in the dirt by the side of the road.  If the harvest fails, the good state has reserves.  If you are disabled or abandoned or orphaned or widowed, the good state will insure you are cared for.  If a powerful man decides he wants your home, the state will prevent it.  If the storm rises or the earth shakes and all is lost, the state will be there to rebuild.   It's an essential part of the social contract.

That isn't just true for our Constitutional Republic, which in its ideal provides for the common defense, promotes the general welfare, and secures the blessings of liberty.  It has always been true.  The protection of the rights of the "very poor" rests at the foundation of even our most ancient systems of governance.

Within the legal codes of the Torah, care for the last and the least is absolutely fundamental.  If you fall into debt and bondslavery, it promises eventual release.  If you are a stranger in the land, you are promised hospitality and protection.  If you lose parents or find yourself unable to provide for your own care, it promises the protection of the community.   Torah is not alone on this front.  The Code of Hammurabi, equally ancient, makes a similar point of asserting care for the widow and the orphan...the "very poor"...as the mark of a good king.

It would be tempting to here note that the Book of Mormon contains no such legal code.  It's a book of narratives and visions, with scant and tangential reference to the concept of justice as presented in Torah.  But for all of my many struggles with the LDS conceptually, I know that concern for the "very poor" is a potent and vital part of what that community does.  One look at the church-produced food in the larders of a struggling Mormon family will disabuse you of any notion that Mormons aren't aware of that need.

Where Romney slipped is in not recognizing that to seek the interests of the "center," you have to assure them that should ill befall them, that safety net will be strong.  He did attempt to do this, in all fairness.  But as the "center" is often just one job-loss and one major illness away from being "very poor," his efforts aren't adequate.

For a Republican running in a time of lingering economic trauma, when all of us have seen friends and family struggling, this is a particular concern.  If you're the candidate of the party that sees the "safety net" as the problem, telling people to trust the safety net may not be the wisest course.

It cuts at the heart of our most fundamental expectations of good government.  And that is not good politics.