Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Opinion Writer

The impoverished Republican poverty agenda

What are Republicans for? We know they are against health-care reform. They voted en masse against it, shut down the government to stop it and have voted nearly 50 times to defund it. We know they are against government spending. They’ve voted for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s draconian budgets, which would slash spending so deeply that even some Republicans are in increasingly open revolt. But those budgets don’t go anywhere. So what do Republicans propose that actually addresses the challenges facing the nation or its people?

Republican leaders are clearly concerned that their policy house is largely vacant. In his dissection of the lost 2012 campaign, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus noted that Republicans suffer a “major deficiency” – the “perception that the GOP does not care about people.” He urged a renewed effort to become “the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.

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All that advice was lost in the anti-Obama venom that unifies Republicans. But after the government shutdown sent Republican poll numbers plummeting to new depths, a new effort – or at least a new public relations push – has been launched. The early reports make the administration’s botched health-care takeoff look smooth by comparison.

Politico noted that Republicans trooping into House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office received a paper titled “Agenda 2014.” The paper was blank. As of now, Politico reported, details are scant, but Republicans seem to be focused more on identifying the problems than the solutions. “The beginning should always be what are the problems we’re trying to fix,” said Republican policy chair James Lankford (Okla). Or as a GOP aide involved in the planning sessions was quoted: “Cantor wants to take us in a new direction, which is good. The problem is that we don’t know where we are headed, and we don’t know what we can sell to our members.”

Luckily, Cantor isn’t the only game in town. The Post published an adoring article on Ryan, Mitt Romney’s former running mate. The Post reported that Ryan and his staff have been “quietly” visiting “inner-city neighborhoods” and conservative think tanks, looking for creative ways to address poverty that can replace the “bureaucratic top-down anti-poverty programs” that Ryan’s budget would gut.

But the new ideas can’t include any new taxes or new spending – Ryan is staunchly against both. That doesn’t leave much. According to The Post, “his idea of a war on poverty so far relies heavily on promoting volunteerism and encouraging work through existing federal programs, including the tax code.” He’s repackaging private-school vouchers. And Ryan assumes that charity might take the place of the food stamps he’s cutting. “You cure poverty eye to eye, soul to soul,” he told a Heritage Foundation forum. “Spiritual redemption: That’s what saves people.” Prayer is good, but when it comes to public policies, as The Post story concluded, “Ryan’s speeches have been light on specifics.”

Some of those “specifics” are being offered by the tea party. Ryan and Cantor may be casting about for ways to look compassionate, but the tea party remains on the hunt. Politico detailed that Rep. Tim Heulskamp (Kan.) and a group of conservatives are gearing up for yet another assault on health-care reform. Assuming that the budget negotiations don’t reach an agreement by the December deadline, Congress will have to pass a continuing resolution by mid-January to keep the government open and funded. Huelskamp and his allies think that’s a perfect time to cut $20 billion out of Medicaid and transfer it to the Pentagon. That would eliminate Medicaid expansion – the one part of Obamacare that is working well – and placate Republicans worried about the cuts the military faces next year.

Cut health protection for the working poor and give the money to a Pentagon that is the largest center of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government? Or slash food stamps while fending off every effort to close the tax dodges that allow companies like General Electric to avoid paying any taxes? The Republican “war on poverty” looks a lot like a war on the poor. It will take a lot of charity and volunteers and a lot more than “messaging” and “rebranding” to erase that indelible “deficiency.”

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