In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton built his campaign for the White House on doing more for the "forgotten middle class." Calling it the "new covenant" (Democrats since Roosevelt have tried to work the words "new" or "deal" into their campaign slogans), Clinton promised to focus on the people he called "the backbone of the country, the ones who do the work and pay the taxes and send their children off to war."
Sound familiar? Here is Mitt Romney, the morning after the Florida primary: "I'm in this race because I care about Americans. 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 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."
The usual firestorm erupted -- with liberals and conservatives alike pouncing on evidence of Romney's "tin ear." NPR anticipated (eagerly?) that Romney's words would show up in Democratic attack ads. And an exasperated Jonah Goldberg wondered in National Review Online whether Romney actually knows how to play this game: " . . . The concern is, after nearly a decade of running for president, if he can't get this stuff down now he never will."
It wasn't just the reference to not being "concerned" about the "very poor" that was misguided on Romney's part. It was the whole thrust of picking groups to favor or disfavor, help or ignore. When Bill Clinton promised to focus on the middle class (with, for example, a middle class tax cut that never materialized), he was well within a Democratic tradition of claiming to speak for this or that constituency. His departure from Democratic tradition was sly -- whereas previous Democrats had overdone their claims on behalf of the poor -- Clinton shoved the poor aside and focused on bringing goodies to the vast middle class, the people who vote.
This contretemps is an unforced error. Romney has elsewhere declined to engage in this kind of pandering. In his victory speech in Florida, for example, he said, "The path I lay out is not one paved with ever increasing government checks and cradle-to-grave assurances that government will always be the solution. If this election is a bidding war for who can promise more benefits, then I'm not your president. You have that president today." In the second Florida debate, he chastised Gingrich for promising a new federal program at every campaign stop, reminding voters that that's how we got into this mess.