Mitt Romney, anti-poverty warrior: Why his latest reinvention is so ridiculous

He once declared that he wasn't "concerned about the very poor," but now Mitt thinks he's the new Bobby Kennedy

Published January 13, 2015 6:45PM (EST)

Mitt Romney                        (AP)
Mitt Romney (AP)

Should Mitt Romney proceed with plans to launch another White House bid, he will attempt a feat that has rarely succeeded in American politics. Not since Richard Nixon's 1968 victory has someone gone on to win the presidency after previously capturing his party's nod but losing the general election. The prospect of a third Romney campaign evokes memories of Tricky Dick for another reason, as well. Reading accounts of Romney's preparations for a 2016 comeback attempt, it's hard not to hearken back to the perpetual reinventions of the nation's 37th president.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nixon's Democratic opponent in 1968, acerbically recounted Nixon's many makeovers in a campaign appearance that year.  "They started the renewal job in 1952, a 'brand-new' Nixon. There was some reason for it, too," the Democrats' Happy Warrior cracked. "Then they had another renewal job in 1956. Then they had another renovation operation in 1960. Then, when he went to run for governor in California in 1962, they renewed him again. And then, in 1964, another touch-up."

"And now, I read about the 'new Nixon' of 1968," Humphrey related. "Ladies and gentlemen, anybody that had his political face lifted so many times can't be very new."

The man whose father served as Nixon's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is poised to undergo a new facelift of his own as he contemplates entering next year's presidential beauty pageant. In the final analysis, Willard Mitt Romney's many faces tell underscore a single truth: His core conviction is simply that he belongs in elected office.

In the days before Romney mounted his first political campaign -- a surprisingly strong but ultimately ill-fated challenge to Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994 -- he was a socially conservative Mormon bishop who admonished a woman whose life was endangered by her pregnancy not to have an abortion. However, by the time Romney ran against Kennedy, he was a socially liberal Republican who supported a woman's right to choose and even promised to do more for gay rights than Kennedy did.

Then, after moving to Utah to rescue the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney pondered making his political career there. Because he couldn't run as a social liberal in the deeply conservative state, Romney disavowed the "pro-choice" label, seemingly presaging a return to socially conservative form. But when the Massachusetts governorship appeared ripe for picking in 2002, Romney returned to the Bay State in and promised once again to safeguard abortion rights, while pitching himself to voters as a "progressive" Republican.

As 2008 approached and Romney opted not to pursue re-election as governor in 2006 -- a smart choice, given that he'd likely have lost -- he then refashioned himself as a right-wing culture warrior, opposing not only abortion and gay rights, but also embryonic stem cell research and immigration reform. During his second presidential run in 2012, Romney campaigned on a hard-right platform in the primaries, but in the general election campaign against President Obama, he touted himself primarily as a competent manager who would right the nation's economic ship.

After he lost to Obama, Romney seemed to express contrition for some of the more intemperate remarks he made during the campaign. In November 2013, he even suggested openness to immigration reform -- a far cry from the days when Romney called for unauthorized immigrants to "self-deport." But as he gears up to run again, Romney is reportedly ready to run to the right on the issue, perhaps sensing Jeb Bush's vulnerability there. Yet even as Romney signals that he'll campaign as a severe conservative on issues like immigration and taxes, Politico reports that he'll be adopting a softer line on another topic. Come 2016, the former Bain Capital CEO aims to position himself as an anti-poverty warrior, according to the publication's Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann.

"Romney, who made a fortune in the financial sector and was cast by Democrats in 2012 as a heartless businessman, wants to make tackling poverty — a key issue for his 2012 vice-presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan — one of the three pillars of his campaign," Haberman and Hohmann write. At this stage, it's unclear what Romney's anti-poverty agenda would entail. It's certainly not as if his past statements offer any clues; in 2012, Romney told CNN's Soledad O'Brien that he was "not concerned about the very poor" because "we have a safety net there." Romney added that his campaign was "focused on middle-income Americans. My campaign — you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus.”

Somewhere along the course of the past three years, however, Governor 47 Percent has decided that perhaps the poor are worth focusing on, after all. The man who railed against Americans who would never be convinced to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives" now fancies himself a latter-day Bobby Kennedy. (Coming soon: The Mitt Romney Appalachian tour?) Of course, Romney is unlikely to put forth any proposals that would meaningfully reduce the level of poverty in the U.S. Like his 2012 running mate and close associate Paul Ryan, Romney may outline a paternalistic anti-poverty approach, complete with Ryan's "contracts" requiring the poors to be on their very best behavior or else face "sanctions." He may repeat standard conservative tropes about how family breakdown contributes to poverty, even as he ignores the systemic economic problems that themselves cause familial woes. He'll probably tout the purported trickle-down effects of tax cuts for "job creators." And like the shamelessly cynical Nixon, Romney may well exploit good, old-fashioned xenophobia; if he's going to run on an anti-immigrant platform, perhaps he'll demonize immigrants as job-stealers. That narrative may be bunk, but no matter; there's an election on.

At any rate, it may matter little what anti-poverty proposals Romney offers. By the time he launches his 2020 campaign, he'll almost certainly have discarded them.

By Luke Brinker

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