As the election season rap sheet on Mitt Romney grows longer, dramatic accusations are being aimed at the Republican Party’s anointed contender for the White House—accusations being circulated not only by liberals but by independents and libertarians. Among the allegations: anti-choice Romney once owned stock in a company that disposed of aborted fetuses; he set up Bain Capital with money from Robert Maxwell and Jack Lyons, people later learned to have been guilty of pension fund embezzlement and fraud, respectively.
Most recently, Romney got in his own way by accusing President Obama of eliminating the work requirements for welfare recipients—a charge that’s not only untrue, but that ignores the fact that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney joined other Republican governors in pressing for waivers for work requirements for welfare recipients like the waivers Obama would allow.
That way of using the language of expediency rather than the language of truth—and the subject of that blunder, welfare—points up what I find most worrisome about Romney, a man who, after all, has many good points. We’re not likely, for example, to hear that he’s treated his wife outrageously (a John Edwards he’s not, apparently), or is shadowed by any personal scandal more serious than using questionable judgment in transporting the family dog to Ontario in a roof carrier for a family vacation (the trip lasted 12 hours).
I met Mitt Romney in 1994, when he was running for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy. It’s worthwhile to hark back to the Kennedy years now, in a time when so much money is involved in political campaigns that the race for president is dominated by wealthy people or those with the support of the superrich. Whatever you thought of Kennedy, he was a rich man who gave the lie to the idea that wealthy people can’t understand the situations of those with less money. He knew old people were eating catfood. He knew there were scores, hundreds of applications for every available job, though right- wingers preached that people were only on welfare because they didn’t want to work. Was Romney in touch with such things or out of touch, I wondered as I entered Springfield’s Civic Center to cover the Republican state convention in 1994.
The convention was fun—colorful, spirited, full of humor and hope that the GOP had a candidate who could beat the unbeatable Kennedy. When Romney got up, he had a lot to say about welfare—essentially the same things Newt Gingrich and other Republicans who later unveiled the Contract With America were saying. What he said reminded me of an old joke about population control: Somewhere in the world, a woman is having a baby every minute. What should we do? Answer: Find that woman and stop her. The right’s position was a lot like that: find those 17-year-olds (the subtext: mostly black 17-year-olds) who are having hundreds of thousands of babies every year, and stop them.
Romney didn’t talk about people like a couple I knew, who were both working but couldn’t afford an eye operation for their five-year-old; they went on welfare because there was no universal health coverage and Medicaid would pay for the child’s surgery. He didn’t talk about people who wanted to work and had found jobs, but couldn’t get to their workplaces because they didn’t have cars and there was no public transportation for them. He didn’t talk about how people got low-paying jobs, lost them again, and were trapped in a cycle of working and being laid off, working and going back on welfare, because there was no way for them to get the schooling for jobs that would last.
He didn’t talk at all about the way welfare was related to other problems, problems any welfare worker encounters every day. He just talked about how those who had been on welfare “for generations” had to be gotten off it.
As it happened, the state of Massachusetts had recently come out with a booklet of simple facts about welfare that had been widely distributed to the media. The book said, for one thing, that most welfare, meaning primarily Medicaid and what was then called Aid to Families With Dependent Children, was used by white people. It also said, as did other sources, that the average length of stay on welfare was two years.
After the speeches had concluded at the convention, there was a rollicking snake dance around the Civic Center. I caught up with Romney at the end of it, explained that I was a reporter, and said that in view of his speech, I had a question to ask him. He looked me in the eye—a direct, candid look—and nodded receptively. “Do you know what the average length of stay on welfare is?” I asked.
He frowned slightly, then looked me in the eye again and said, “I don’t know.”
A politician who admitted he didn’t know: he’s honest, I thought, when he deals with someone one-on-one. But he would change a system that affects whether or not millions of people have enough to feed their children without even knowing the facts about what that system does, or what those people’s situation is like. He’s never seen those people, evidently never even talked with case workers. Yet he wants to be a U.S. Senator and influence welfare policy.
That sums up my concern about Romney, a concern less dramatic than the worry about malfeasance by his early investors. It’s a concern many would say applies to all politicians. I would answer, not all—and not all politicians are running for president at a time when so many Americans are at risk of poverty, lack of health care, and, in the case of the young, loss of opportunity for productive futures.
Romney used the party-line language about welfare without knowing what he was talking about. He still uses language that way. And someone who uses language as Romney does—who has his own brand of eloquence, illuminated by a narrowly personal integrity, but without the infrastructure of fact and conviction—is not only apt to make policy mistakes on his own, but is particularly ripe to be used by people with more specific agendas than he has himself. That those people would be the 99 percent seems highly unlikely.