Politics & King Day Reflections on Poverty

We’ve now reached that time of year where politicians of all stripes engage in the annual exercise of obligatory commentary on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s not just politicians, either, as we’re all sucked in to the reflective franchise. As we should. In his day, King was ahead of his time, steadily prescient on a great number of issues that we’re still dogged with today. That deserves more than the share of annual attention it receives.

One could argue that it minimizes the greatness of his legacy to simply reference him as a “Civil Rights Leader.” There’s something about that which drains the intellectual heftiness from his memory, relegating him to mere activist when King was, literally, rattling the entire American social construct and redefining it. He was in the pantheon of great world philosophers, thinkers and social advocates who was able to produce a good bit of scholarship during a relatively short life. We won’t be around, but will be interesting to see what the history books say in the next few hundred years (they’ll be completely digital and page-less by this time, and, yes, since I’m talking about the future that far down I am optimistic we’ll have routed climate change by then).

This year’s exchange of King reflections, both subtle and direct, reveals some interesting competing narratives on poverty emerging between Democrats and Republicans. On the eve of King’s birthday, obsessed presidential candidate and former 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney gives a peculiar speech on poverty in San Diego which is quickly lampooned and ridiculed by the left. U-T San Diego:

Mitt Romney stressed the need to sharply reduce poverty in America Friday night during a speech to members of the Republican National Committee.

“Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in American than ever before,” the former Massachusetts governor told a large crowd aboard the USS Midway Museum on San Diego Bay.

He said only Republican and conservative principles, such as focusing on education, fostering strong families and creating jobs, could solve a problem that President Lyndon Johnson first tackled 50 years ago.

Edward Isaac-Dovere in Politico writes about the “Reinvention of Mitt Romney,” a story full of slings from many former and current Obamanics who pounce on Romney 3.0 as unbelievably hypocritical:

Mitt Romney, sudden champion of Americans trying to make ends meet — it’s coming off to progressives and veterans of President Barack Obama’s winning reelection campaign as a little too rich.

The 2012 Republican nominee’s sudden return to presidential politics already had them dusting off old attack lines. His reinvention Friday night as an anti-poverty warrior has them in a frenzy of excitement, even glee, at what they see as the Democratic Party’s stroke of good luck.

“Romney is 47 percent concerned about inequality,” the president’s 2012 campaign press secretary, Ben LaBolt, said in an email. “The other 53 percent of him would rather polish his car elevators.”

To the left, another Massachusetts politician, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), is making her mark as something of an actual front-liner in the war against corporate greed and excess, which leads to poverty. Karen Tumulty in Washington Post reports:

No small amount of speculation has centered on whether Warren herself will run for the White House in 2016. She insists that she will not. But her advisers and longtime allies say that she intends to keep the pressure on Clinton, to make sure the former secretary of state pays more than lip service to the issues that matter to Warren.

She is training her heat vision not on the Oval Office, but two doors down the hall on the Cabinet Room. Warren wants to make sure that Wall Street-aligned figures who have shaped the Clinton and Obama brand of economic policy for the past quarter-century, going back to former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, are not the only ones at the oval mahogany table.

There’s a lot happening here in these competing visions from two prominent figures within the two parties as everyone gears up for 2016.

In recognizing that, what shouldn’t be so easily discounted is Romney’s anti-poverty message. Sure, it is laughable. Sure, it’s rich. But, when examining it from a purely cynical and strategic perspective – in the context of whatever political plan Romney and elements of the GOP have in store for 2016 – there’s something rather slick and sinister going on. It’s interesting how poverty is discussed pretty much absent the complicity of the rich or Wall Street in its exacerbation. But, more interesting is how over simplified the messaging is, how starkly black and white it’s painted. This is a message for future consumption by voters who don’t know or don’t care about nuance and sophisticated language on how we arrived at a poverty paradigm. In the war of words on poverty, the winner will be who sounds good while talking about it.

Charles Ellison

Charles Ellison is Politics Contributor for theRoot.com and Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune. He can be reached via Twitter @ellisonreport