The crowd was 80,000 strong. At the University of Michigan’s 1964 commencement, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood in the campus’s Michigan Stadium and unveiled one of the most significant political programs in modern American history. “For in your time,” he told the graduates, “we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.” Among those listening to the 36th president’s address: Michigan Governor George Romney, who sat behind Johnson on the stage.
Now, nearly half a century later, Romney’s son Mitt is struggling to convince a sufficient number of American voters that he genuinely cares about those who fall outside what Johnson called “the rich society and the powerful society.” Whether Romney, the putative GOP nominee, can do so may well help determine how he fares against Barack Obama in November.
Bluntly and roughly put, the key to the politics of the poor is to demonstrate concern without appearing to be hopelessly soft. As ever, Bill Clinton mastered this balancing act by deploying the rhetoric (and in many cases the policy reality) of offering “a hand up, not a handout.”
The politics of economic justice are complicated. American voters have not paid sustained attention to the poor since the early days of Johnson’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. The seeming intractability of the problem and the (understandable) failure of the programs of the Kennedy-Johnson years to win a complete victory over poverty (always an unreasonable expectation) fed the Nixon-led counter-reaction to the Democratic efforts. “The Great Society” remains a potent phrase in the Gingrichian vernacular: it is code for well-meaning but ultimately doomed efforts to help poor minorities at the expense of hard-working white Americans.
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And yet, as Mitt Romney learned last week, it is politically toxic with the broad American public to appear cavalier about those whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these.” Romney made a serious political mistake when he said he “was not concerned about the very poor.” He admitted that he had misspoken, and given the number of words a day that come out of a presidential candidate’s mouth, the marvel is that someone like Romney doesn’t say many more stupid things than he actually does.
The remark about the poor, though, is likely to stick, for it fits in the developing impression (I am struggling to avoid using the word “narrative”) that Romney’s riches render him too remote for the country’s good. If Romney realizes this and responds to the fallout from his “I’m-not-concerned-with-the-very-poor” remark with a new emphasis on developing opportunity for the least of these — and a good politician would do just that at this point — then perhaps some good could come of what was a dispiriting moment. Romney has a chance now to articulate and press for antipoverty measures that could be good for the needy, thus substantively redeeming his stylistic failing.
For the reality is that the independent voters in the competitive states that decide presidential contests may not be as morally invested in alleviating poverty and restoring the hope of the American Dream as they ought to be, but they would like to think they care about the less fortunate. Such voters will, I think, be reluctant to cast their lot with a man who seems to put more faith in the “rich society and the powerful society” than in the hope of a great one.