More people in poverty than the 1960s. Some 23 million unemployed. Record high numbers on food stamps. Why doesn’t the left call President Obama “ cruel” or say he has contempt for the working man? (Some of those working men certainly are the ones who cling to religion and guns, whom Obama previously sneered at.) We’ve been hearing this same splurge of sanctimony for decades from the left. Conservatives are mean. Or hate the poor. Or they’re selfish. Sigh. In 50 years or more, the mountain of moral superiority hasn’t eroded at all. But with the most liberal president in at least 70 years who has failed miserably to improve the lot of the poor — or any Americans for that matter — the left’s self- satisfaction is being tested.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has noted that the left is very big on “inputs” — Look how much we’re spending on the poor! But, Ryan says, the left is very bad on outcomes — how much dependency, unemployment, poverty, etc. So is it cruel to stick with policies that leave so many in poverty and/or without work? Bilingual education, a favorite of the left for generations, doesn’t seem to be kind if children don’t learn English and enjoy access to advanced education and better job opportunities.
Liberals are big on lauding their intentions and concluding that anyone who does not share their means, no matter how faulty, must be opposed to their ends, namely greater prosperity and opportunity for the poor. This is the triumph of intentions over accomplishments. But true virtue entails what you do, not what you feel and how strongly you can emote.
In this debate the left has picked a poor target. Ryan, like the welfare reformers of the 1990s, seeks to reform Medicaid and other programs for the poor. He has described an agenda that promotes upward mobility. And his support for education reform, such as school vouchers, is aimed at bettering the lives of primarily inner-city minorities.
Why doesn’t the left want to debate outcomes? Unfortunately, the same rigid statism that Obama adheres to is enforced dogma on the left. There is no liberal policy innovator in the mold of Jack Kemp or Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Nathan Glazer. From the stimulus to the Buffett Rule, the left has recycled shopworn tax-and-spend (and borrow) policies.
The measure of virtue and devotion to the poor is reduced to a single question for the left: How much are you taxing and spending? The philosophy was perfectly summed up by Barack Obama in 2008, who let it be known that raising capital gains tax was the right thing to do even if cutting them would raise more revenue. It is a matter of fairness, he soberly explained.
And if you want to talk about disdain for non-elites, consider a political party that thinks Americans can’t manage their own health care and shouldn’t be able to choose their own schools. The party of “Life of Julia,” a self-parody of dependency promotion, should reconsider what is or is not cruel and disdainful.
The good news is the average American doesn’t think we are spending too little or that government is too perfect. The ordinary voter doesn’t equate compassion with support for Big Labor’s agenda. Voters, I am confident, don’t think it is compassionate to do nothing to extend the solvency of Social Security.
When presented with a reasoned argument on debt or public-employee unions or taxes, voters remain intensely practical: Will it work? Are we helping those whom we intend to ( the poor, students) not special-interest voting blocs ( public-employee unions)?
Most voters know, or they say they do in poll after poll, that we can’t keep going as we are and expect to escape the fate of Western Europe. (Are Spain and Greece more compassionate or just broke and entirely dysfunctional?) Politicians of both parties would do well to keep this in mind. Better to work on what works than impugn the character or motives of your ideological opponents.