The Illusion of a Republican Anti-Poverty PlatformS

It is a bizarre mark of progress that America's level of economic inequality has become so chronic and severe that even the Republican party realizes it must present some sort of proposal to address the economic underclass. It's like watching a gaggle of nuns plot out a sex-education curriculum.

The Republican party—an organization that exists for the express purpose of not remedying America's economic inequality—has come to understand that not even our quasi-corporatocratic electoral system is enough to shield them from the need to address this issue any longer. The drumbeat that began with the Great Recession, continued with the Occupy movement, and was revived anew with the 50th anniversary of LBJ's War on Poverty has grown too loud. Almost all of the poorest states in the nation vote Republican. It's not the issue must be solved; it's that the voters must be pacified with proposals that could (if one subscribes to the Republican worldview) be construed as theoretically providing a framework for the reduction of poverty. The unspoken understanding within the political class is that such proposals will either never be enacted, or, if enacted, will certainly not make a meaningful contribution to ending economic inequality in the real world. That would require socialism. What we're talking about is a Republican Masquerade of Plausibility.

Who better to offer up our first completely substance-less Republican anti-poverty proposal than Ari Fleischer, the completely substance-less former mouthpiece for the Bush administration?

If President Obama wants to reduce income inequality, he should focus less on redistributing income and more on fighting a major cause of modern poverty: the breakdown of the family.

"Given how deep the problem of poverty is," Fleischer writes, "taking even more money from one citizen and handing it to another will only diminish one while doing very little to help the other." Of course! Why try to help poor people by giving them money, when you could help them far more by haranguing them about getting married? It's the perfect Republican proposal, in that it requires only sanctimonious moralizing from the rich, with no potential damage to their economic interests whatsoever.

How else would Republicans like to help the poor? How about... by drastically cutting corporate taxes!

In this model, when the U.S. corporate income tax is eliminated, "real wages of unskilled workers end up 12 percent higher, and those of skilled workers end up 13 percent higher."

Giving money directly to the poor is bad. Giving money to the poor by enriching corporations and their owners and hoping that some of that largesse trickles down the lowest wage-earners is good. Allowing corporations to take a cut of all economic stimulus is "efficient." If you want a job as a Republican pundit, you must be able to argue this point with a straight face.

Can't quite manage that? Perhaps you should take the easier Republican route of simply ignoring the troublesome lower class altogether in favor of the more politically palatable middle class. Says Ross Douthat:

If you were to build a rhetorical frame around some of the better policy ideas floating around on the right-of-center these days — from Mike Lee's family-friendly tax plan to the James Capretta Obamacare alternative to the kind of unemployment-fighting agenda A.E.I.'s Michael Strain outlines in the latest issue of National Affairs — it probably wouldn't be neatly divided into a "message on poverty" and a "message for the middle class." Instead, it would talk about how this new right-of-center agenda would offer the same kind of thing to Americans below the poverty line as it does to Americans anxiously holding on to their place in the middle class: Not a conservatism of "compassion" (that Bush-era frame was always a mistake, even when the substance was decent), but a conservatism of respect, in which benefits and tax credits are tied to effort, responsibility, family, work, in ways that apply up and down the income ladder.

In this neat-o interpretation of the problem, Republicans need not embarrass themselves by pretending to care about the very poor; they can simply maintain their standard free marketeering agenda of tax cuts, and them "frame" it as something that could benefit the poor, if they would just get their acts together enough to make themselves members of the middle class. That is from a column with the telling title, "Should Republicans Talk About Poverty?" Which hints at the final element of the notional GOP Anti-Poverty Platform: a tacit acknowledgment that, if you scratch a millimeter beneath the surface, you will find that this discussion about how to address a 30-year-long national plunge into inequality is occurring entirely in the context of "owning" the issue rhetorically:

Democrats are obsessed with income inequality. They are determined to exploit the issue in this midterm-election year. It is a strategy that will no doubt be aided and abetted by the media...

It would be a political and policy mistake, however, for the GOP to let Democrats own the income-inequality issue.

It's not that anyone in this discussion cares about poor people. It's that we have so many poor people now that it is necessary to somehow convince them, temporarily, that your party "owns" the issue of their well-being.

Lower taxes on the rich. Lower taxes on corporations. The lowest possible minimum wage. Opposition to national health care. Systematic undermining of public schools. And a heap of lectures about how to pull thine own self up by thine own bootstraps. That is the Republican Anti-Poverty Platform thus far. It suits them well.

[Image by Jim Cooke]