So I published a post titled A Lack of Perspective on Monday about why I believe that Mitt Romney shouldn’t be president because he can’t understand what it’s like to be poor. That’s dumbing it down a bit, but that’s the general premise.
In response, one of my favorite Facebook critics, Mark Ashley*, asked me whether I really believed that someone had to be poor to understand what poverty is and stated that a person’s actual policies show a lot more about a politician than their life experiences.
I’ll restate his argument here:
Had this been written in 2004, it would have been a great argument against John Kerry. Of course, the alternative was Bush, who also came from wealth, but you have effectively disqualified the likes of JFK, FDR, and a lot of other presidents.
The idea generally that one ought to have been poor at one time to be a good political leader seems odd to me. How poor is poor? Does one’s family have to have begged at one time to qualify? Been on government assistance? Or is simply struggling to make ends meet enough? I’m not being facetious in asking these questions, and I am well acquainted with living below the poverty line. My expectation is that any person running for president would be long past poverty–nobody is interested in electing a person who has never been successful in life–and many up-from-the-bootstrap people are not particularly sympathetic to the poor either.
Ultimately, there are a lot of people who have been poor whom I’d not trust to run an office lottery pool, let alone the country, and there are a lot who have been rich about whom I’d say the same. Likewise, many who have been poor and who have never been poor have genuinely good perspectives on poverty and even sometimes good policy proposals. What matters more is how a person has processed those life experiences and what a person chooses to do with them.
I’m not about to offer any defense of Romney, and I do think that life experiences matter, but I am skeptical of the notion that someone has to be/have been [poor, rich, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, female, male, etc.] in order to empathize with, represent, and lead people who fall into those categories. Show me a person’s actual policies. That, to me, is much more revealing of how a politician thinks.
First, let me address the idea that this argument would have disqualified JFK, FDR, and a lot of other presidents. On its face, that’s a valid argument, but I believe that there is one important factor that makes this argument moot:
The income equality gap is higher now than it has been at any time since the Great Depression.
When FDR came to power, despite coming from old New York money, he set out New Deal Legislation, got us through World War II (I am not going to debate the wisdom of either New Deal legislation or his policy decisions in WWII right now) and worked with civil rights organizations like the NAACP. Point being: He wanted to help.
On to JFK. Was he wealthy? Yes. Was he from a wealthy family? Great. But he seemed to understand the problems and priorities of this country in a way that Romney does not. (Kennedy also wasn’t a draft dodger, but that’s another kettle of fish.) Kennedy genuinely wanted to better the lives of his countrymen. I can’t say I’ve seen any indication of that from Romney since his campaign began.
When Mark says “The idea generally that one ought to have been poor at one time to be a good political leader seems odd to me,” I have to say that it’s not to me. He goes on to say that “My expectation is that any person running for president would be long past poverty” and that “there are a lot of people who have been poor whom I’d not trust to run an office lottery pool, let alone the country, and there are a lot who have been rich about whom I’d say the same.”
Does my argument come down to attitude and life experience as much as it does money? Absolutely. But there’s such a huge gap now between rich and poor that I really feel that Romney and other people in his income bracket just simply don’t get it. He has not ever had to worry about a single thing I do on a daily basis. And his comments about the 47% being “dependent on government” and that a middle class income is “$200,000 to $250,000,” just for a few examples, show how out of touch he truly is.
This baffles me, considering healthcare and gay marriage in Massachusetts, but I don’t trust that he’ll revert back to being a ‘progressive moderate’ once he takes office.
Obama came up from relatively nothing. His mom, while educated, was not rich. He lived in parts of the world where not many people are rich by anyone’s standards. He went to prep school on scholarship and then to Columbia and Harvard the same way most people in my income bracket would, by shelling out for student loans. He worked as a community organizer in Chicago and organized African-American voter drives.
I could go on and on, but my point is that he gets it. He gets what my problems are. He’s worried about money. He’s had to pay off student loans. He’s worried about health care for his family. He’s experienced the problems of being a minority in this country. And the policies that he’s tried to implement (again, the merits of those are a different argument) reflect that.
So while, yes, a lot of it comes down to empathy and policy, I don’t believe Romney has enough of either to lead our country.
Maybe, until the income gap goes down to levels that make sense, we should only allow people who came up from nothing to run. It might help.
*Mark Ashley is a buddy of mine who is also working to be tenured at a university and so doesn’t want his name associated with silly political blogs at this time. Due to his needing to use a pseudonym and then coming up with one as silly as Mark Ashley, I am dubbing him Professor Who, Master of Mystery. (Feel free to insert a booming voice worthy of that title here.) Prof. Who for short. You’ll be seeing a lot more of him, as he’s been set into a contract to write me 8 blog posts by the end of the year.