COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential candidates on Saturday turned their attention away from border walls and terrorist threats and birth certificates, if only for a day, to focus on a topic that is dear to the hearts of some leading conservative thinkers but has remained far from the center of the GOP race: poverty in America.
It created a spectacle that seemed far removed from the tumult of the campaign at large: A low-octane discussion of conservative policy that was short on candidate sniping and red-meat applause lines and long on mentions of block grants, school vouchers and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
That was the intent of the event’s sponsors, the Jack Kemp Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and its leading moderator, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has promised to use his office to make the 2016 election into a battle of ideas rather than personalities. The Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity, as the event was billed, was focused on issues near to Ryan’s wonky heart and that of his mentor, the late Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
“We’ve been fighting a war on poverty for over 50 years now, and I don’t think you conclude anything other than this war is a stalemate,” Ryan told a packed room at the convention center here at the outset of the forum. “We’ve treated poverty like they’re potholes that need to be filled up and then we move on. … We now have a safety net that is designed to catch people falling into poverty when what we really need is a safety net that is designed to help get people out of poverty.”
While the forum was notable for delving into the policy weeds, it was also notably missing the two most aggressive Republican candidates, front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), offering a glimpse at what the 2016 GOP campaign might have looked like without the Trump-fueled rage against the Republican establishment.
The six candidates who attended — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — spent much of their time discussing tax plans that would, to varying degrees, cut federal government revenue and require significant cuts to long-standing social programs. But their approaches differed sharply, even if the format did not make for camera-friendly clashes.
Christie, for instance, touted his initiative as governor to increase New Jersey's Earned Income Tax Credit — a program that boosts the income of the poorest workers — while Carson argued for a biblically inspired flat tax without any loopholes. He criticized low-income workers that do not pay federal income tax. “Everybody has to have skin in the game, and it doesn’t make any sense to me for half the people not to pay any taxes but have a say in how much the others pay,” Carson said, drawing applause.
Huckabee pitched his “Fair Tax” plan, which would replace all income taxes with a national sales tax. Kasich and Christie discussed plans to improve treatment for nonviolent drug offenders, Rubio floated a plan to allow high schoolers to access federal Pell grants to pay for vocational training, and Bush discussed his experience establishing a charter school in Miami and his desire to replicate the model widely.
All agreed on one notion: the failure of existing federal social programs to address the root causes of poverty. Each candidate called for reforms that would give aid recipients more incentives to work, going beyond the major welfare reform of 1996 that made the central federal program for poor families into a program offering only temporary aid in most cases. Several floated reforms that are popular in the conservative policy sphere, including devolving federal programs by delivering block grants that states would have wide latitude to administer as they wish.
“Our safety net in America today does not cure poverty,” Rubio said. “It treats the pain of poverty, the symptoms of poverty, but it does not cure it. The only cure for poverty is a good-paying job.”
The forum was co-moderated by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who grew up in a low-income family in South Carolina, where the poverty rate of 15 percent is the nation’s 10th-highest. Other participants included noted conservative thinkers Arthur Brooks, the AEI’s director, and Robert Woodson, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. They sought to combat the notion that issues of poverty and opportunity lie far afield from the GOP agenda.
“Republicans have always thought about it, but they haven’t always said it, and that’s what we want to do,” said Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), a possible running mate for the eventual nominee, in brief remarks at the event.
But the specter of Trump — and his dog-eats-dog worldview of “winners” and “losers,” leaving little compassion for the latter — hung over the event. Friday night, Trump held a standing-room-only rally in South Carolina, an hour’s drive from Columbia.
Jimmy Kemp — the event’s master of ceremonies and the son of the late congressman, who died in 2009 — said in an interview that Trump’s attendance at the forum would have been “fascinating.”
“Would he come here and badger and point fingers? I don’t think he would,” Kemp said. “He would have to talk about actual ideas. ... It would have been really revealing and could have been really good to see how he performs. But I think we had a great conversation, and it didn’t diminish at all that he wasn’t here.”
The hurly-burly of the broader campaign intruded at one point, however, when immigration activists protesting Rubio’s support for deportations shouted at the senator repeatedly as he spoke. The first two times, Rubio smiled and continued describing his plan to increase the Child Tax Credit as the protesters were removed. By the third interruption, his patience had thinned.
“We're going to enforce our immigration laws, guys,” he told the protesters, and the crowd roared.