One thing in the Republicans’ favor these days is that their entertainment value is much higher than their poll scores. From Liz/Mary Cheney’s brief campaign to Rep. Peter King saying Sen. Rand Paul doesn’t deserve to be in the Senate to Bob Gates sending manned drones over the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Republicans just seems like a lot more fun. And just when you’ve finished one chuckle, here comes another: Marco Rubio wants to help reinvent the GOP as the “good on poverty” party.
I’m sorry, but the video introduction to his speech, presumably the first in a series where the senator puts on a little gravitas for a possible 2016 presidential run, makes me laugh. Partly it’s the delivery; he comes across as both very young and very tired, which is an unusual combination. But it’s the premise that’s really risible.
Tied to the 50th anniversary of the launch of the “war on poverty,” Rubio makes the same argument Ronald Reagan made more memorably: poverty won. The Republicans say that not only did trillions of dollars in federal spending (an accounting sleight of hand since that includes a lot of Social Security and Medicaid money) fail to alleviate poverty, it created a generation of Americans whose individual initiative has been sapped by government dependence. The answer, according to Rubio, is a little fuzzy, but it seems to include less government spending on social programs, skills education and tax incentives to create jobs.
The substance of Rubio’s argument is Republican orthodoxy, and it contains this truth: Poverty is a result of a stagnating economy. Poverty actually declined dramatically in the decade after Lyndon Johnson promised to eradicate it, as it did in the latter half of the 1990s. Both of these periods were times of economic expansion, and while I buy the conclusion that the country has generally prospered more under Democratic administrations than Republican ones, the country still has a significant problem with economic growth and hence poverty.
But whatever one thinks of the substance of Mr. Rubio’s argument, what about the politics? Is emphasizing poverty really a winning strategy for Republicans? Not from my vantage point. Rubio’s speech plays right into Democrats’ transparent strategy of putting Republicans on the defensive on income disparity. Extending unemployment benefits and raising the wage may not excite policy wonks as real solutions to poverty, but they are very popular with voters. To somebody without a job, a few more weeks of help looks pretty good; so does a four-buck-an-hour raise to someone with a job.
Certain aspects of the Republican brand are hard to shake: country clubs, privilege, tax cuts for the rich, cutting the safety net are some that come to mind. While Mr. Rubio speaks softly, the louder conversation is ongoing, and Republicans are losing it.