Republicans debate whether to have a poverty agenda

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The battle over unemployment benefits and the minimum wage has ignited a broader debate over whether Republicans should roll out a new poverty agenda. The Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report that Republican lawmakers are engaged in a debate over how – or whether — to roll out an agenda designed to address “mounting concerns over economic fairness and the growing gap between the rich and the poor,” which will be increasingly important in 2014.

The policy specifics being discussed by Republicans have already been widely dissected. Josh Barro argues Republicans don’t have any ideas designed to deal with the slack labor market or stagnating wages. Ed Kilgore notes that the ideas being discussed are just about disabling or liberating people from government, rather than improving it. Brian Beutler notes that conservatives never seem to get around to explaining how they would help the poor. Steve Benen decries the same old “tax breaks and privatization schemes.”

Beyond the specifics, however, this nugget in the Post piece jumps out:

For the GOP, the challenge is to move beyond the rhetoric of past campaigns and focus on specific policies showing the party would be effective on behalf of the poor. While some leading Republican figures are developing their own policy prescriptions in anticipation of the 2016 presidential race, there is little consensus within the party about a shared poverty agenda. [...]

…there is deep disagreement among Republican leaders and strategists over whether to embrace an economic-mobility agenda in the 2014 midterm campaigns. Some Republicans are wary of doing so, seeing it as playing on Democrats’ home turf, and think they are better off drawing voters’ attention to the rocky rollout of the health-care law and other problems plaguing Obama.

So some Republicans worry rolling out specific policies could distract from the current situation, in which the certain failure of Obamacare will shower them with political riches all the way through Election Day. The problem with this is the seeming belief that the debate over health care can be neatly separated from the debate over economic fairness and how best to ensure the long term economic security of working and middle class Americans.

After all, the Republican position on Obamacare has far reaching economic dimensions: they are adamantly opposed to the Medicaid expansion, and the consequence of this, according to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, could be that millions go without coverage. The debate over the Medicaid expansion — or indeed over other ways Obamacare expands coverage – can’t be neatly separated from the broader debate over how, or whether, government should intervene to help economically struggling Americans.

The idea that Republicans must avoid letting the debate getting shifted away from Obamacare seems to be that they mustn’t allow anything to distract from headlines about canceled plans and rising premiums — which, it is presumed, will remain front page news for months and months. The GOP economic argument will be that Obamacare (like Big Gummint in general) is crushing people economically. But Democrats are going to do everything they can to shift the Obamacare debate into a broader economic context on their own terms — highlighting stories of Americans being helped by the law, arguing that Republicans would take away its benefits and protections, and tying it to broader GOP resistance to policies that would help struggling Americans, such as the minimum wage hike and unemployment extension. Tying Obamacare to this broader debate will be a major goal in Obama’s upcoming State of the Union Speech, which might get a bit of media attention.

Also, it isn’t as if Republicans can avoid having a poverty agenda. Soon enough, they’ll have to decide whether to kill the extension of unemployment benefits and block the minimum wage hike. These votes will happen, whether or not Republicans roll out a broader agenda. As Jonathan Chait puts it:

At this very moment, the Republican Party does not lack for an agenda toward the jobless, the poor, and the sick. It has an agenda: Republicans are denying Medicaid to 5 million poor Americans in states they control, proposing $40 billion in cuts to food stamps, and cutting off unemployment benefits to workers who can’t find jobs.

Now, maybe none of that will matter. Maybe the problems with Obamacare will continue to be so dominant in the news that they alone will be enough to propel just enough voters in just enough states to hand control of the Senate to the GOP in elections 10 months from now. But that seems like a pretty big gamble.

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Update: Post edited slightly for clarity.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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