By Joe Conason
Nobody in Washington talks much about the poor in America these days, even though they are more and more with us in the economic aftermath of the Great Recession. Perhaps that is why the Washington Post welcomed Paul Ryan’s recent declaration that he wants to fight poverty “with kinder, gentler policies to encourage work and upward mobility.”
The Wisconsin Republican confided to a Post reporter that he has been “quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods”—too quietly to gain any favorable publicity, until now—and consulting with all the usual suspects in the capital’s right-wing think tanks. He wants everyone to understand that he is seeking to figure out the problems faced by poor folks and how he can help.
As a 2016 presidential hopeful, Ryan evidently intends to rebrand himself as a “compassionate conservative”—the same propaganda meme deployed by former President George W. Bush and Karl Rove during the prelude to the 2000 campaign for president—at a moment when the Republican Party badly needs appealing new images and ideas. The Bush gang dropped that gimmick well before they entered the White House, and it was never glimpsed again. But whenever a Republican spouts kinder, gentler, compassionate-conservative babble, the vaunted cynicism of the capital press corps gets washed away in a warm bath of credulity.
But just to be clear, there is nothing new in Ryan’s perspective on poverty, which is impoverished indeed when set next to the outlook of his late mentor Jack Kemp, who became a conservative icon in Congress before he joined the cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although Kemp belatedly recognized the role of government in alleviating poverty, Ryan and the current crop of Republicans in Washington talk about volunteerism, charity and spirituality as the only legitimate ways to address social problems—while all government support for the poor must be slashed or eliminated, as prescribed by their budget.
When Ryan suggests that volunteerism and charity will salve the injuries of the poor, he is merely reviving the “thousand points of light” hoax perpetrated by George H. W. Bush back in 1988, when as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, he had to distinguish himself from the cold-hearted attitudes and actions of that administration to run for presidential office. It was nonsense then and it remains that way, because the volume of private charity in America is utterly dwarfed by the government programs that preserve the poor from starvation.
And when Ryan proclaims that religion will save those shiftless sinners, one soul at a time, he is echoing the same pharisaical pieties underlying George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which was invented, after all, by an ex-Communist turned fundamentalist. This political abuse of faith, for a professing Catholic like Ryan, is rebutted by none other than Pope Francis, who has upheld the Church’s traditional social teaching, blasted the kind of “savage capitalism” Ryan admires and, in particular, criticized “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” Like the ideology of Ryan’s idol Ayn Rand—“and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good,” as he noted last May.
With the tin-eared rhetoric of the Mitt Romney-Ryan campaign still resonating in memory, it will be hard for the former vice-presidential wannabe to persuade any sane person of his profound concern for the underprivileged. There is far more reason to believe that he shares his patrician running mate’s haughty disdain for the “47 percent.”
But if he truly does care, Ryan could lift up America’s poorest simply by stifling his persistent urges to kill the minimum wage, reduce the earned-income tax credit, cut food stamps, wreck Medicaid or carry out any of the dozens of destructive schemes that are, in his perverse outlook, meant to help. And he could rid himself and his party of the rancid notion that there is something morally wrong with families surviving below the poverty line beyond the persistent dearth of decent jobs.
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