DOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE—Paul Ryan mounted an oblique defense of Mitt Romney’s comments at a recent fundraiser that seemed to denigrate the bottom half of the American income spectrum, even as he appeared to distance himself from the remarks.
“This is what Mitt and I are talking about when we are worried about more and more people depending upon President Obama’s government rather than depending on themselves, because by promoting more dependency, by not having jobs and economic growth, people miss their potential,” Ryan said at a town hall in Dover, N.H., in response to a question about the economy. “We should not be measuring the progress of our social programs like food stamps by how many people receive them. We should be measuring the progress of social programs by how many people we can transition off of them.”
The town hall Tuesday was the first time either Romney or Ryan had met voters in person since Mother Jones published excerpts of a video of a closed-door $50,000 fundraiser in Florida earlier this year in which Romney was caught on tape describing how “47%” of people will vote for Obama, people “who are dependent on government, who believe that that they are victims.” He said his “job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Ryan didn’t address the video directly but did defend the campaign against charges that they want to obliterate the social programs that help those in poverty: “We believe in a safety net that is there for people who cannot help themselves so that they can live a life of dignity. We believe in a safety net that is there for people who are down on their luck so that they can get back on their feet.”
But he added, their ticket doesn’t “want a safety net that encourages more dependency, because there is no economic growth behind that, because what that ends up doing is draining people of their will and their potential.”
“We should not be looking at people as if they are stuck in some station or stuck in some class or some victim or something like that.”
At other points, Ryan seemed to almost distance himself from Romney’s remarks, particularly Romney’s line about the American people seeing themselves as victims.
“What we should strive for, what we have to improve upon, in the inner cities, in the poor rural areas, is to make sure that people get that chance so that they can make the most of their lives,” he said. “So we should not be looking at people as if they are stuck in some station or stuck in some class or some victim or something like that.”
The Romney campaign has not spent significant amount of time talking about poverty or income inequality, preferring to speak about jobs, taxes, and the economy. That Ryan did, in a few instances, steer the conversation that way showed just how much Romney’s remarks could potentially impact the direction of the campaign.
Ryan, whose eponymous budget slashes the federal deficit, and who boasted to the crowd here that “I am kind of known as a budget-cutter in Congress,” said one advantage of his plan was that unless the deficit was brought under control, “the safety net will be eviscerated for those who need it.”
Aides and allies of the campaign said that they hoped the damage could be contained and that the controversial comments would be just a one-day story.
“It’s clear that it was brought out now to be political,” said Frank Guinta, who represents the area in Congress. “I think Romney just needs to continue focusing on the economy, on jobs and what people are really concerned about at the end of the day.”
“It can serve as a one-day distraction, but I think people are thinking right now about what is going on in the Middle East, they are thinking 50 days out from an election who is going to help me economically,” he added. “So it’s one of those things you hear a few days out from an election from the opposing side to try to distract. He has got to stay focused on the ideas and the solutions.”
Others here blamed Democrats and the media for attempting to smear the GOP.
“We are praying for you with this media bias,” said one questioner. “We know that it is such a struggle and such a persecution but are so grateful to you for doing it.”
“It’s an honor,” Ryan replied.