Back in 2000, George W. Bush did something fascinating: On the campaign trail he preached “compassionate conservatism,” telling wealthy Republicans about the travails of Mexican-American immigrants and declaring to women in pearls that “the hardest job in America” is that of a single mother.
Those well-heeled audiences looked baffled but applauded.
That instinct to show a little heart helped elect Bush but then largely disappeared from Republican playbooks and policy. Yet now, amid the Republican Party’s civil war, there are intriguing initiatives by the House speaker, Paul Ryan, and some other conservatives to revive an interest in the needy.
Liberals like myself may be tempted to dismiss these new efforts as mere marketing gestures, meant to whitewash what one of the initiatives acknowledges is “the long-standing view of a mean-spirited conservatism.”
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Maybe the liberal skeptics will be proved right. But we should still all root for these efforts, because ultimately whether the poor get help may depend less on Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders than on Republicans at every level. Whether Medicaid is expanded, whether we get high-quality pre-K, whether we tackle addiction, family planning and job training, whether lead continues to poison American children — all these will depend mostly on Republicans who control Congress and most states.
Moreover, Democrats are too quick to assume that they have a monopoly on compassion. Bush, for example, didn’t govern nearly as compassionately as he campaigned. Yet his program against AIDS saved millions of lives. He did a stellar job battling malaria and pressing the fight against sex trafficking.
This will be even harder for Democrats to accept, but Republicans have also sometimes been proved right on poverty issues. They were right that the best way to spell aid is often j-o-b. They were right on the importance of strong two-parent families: We now know that children in single-mother families are five times as likely to live in poverty as those in married households.
So I’d be thrilled if Republicans participated in debates about poverty, rather than forfeited the terrain. A real debate would also elevate issues that are largely neglected, and it would create an opening to hold politicians’ feet to the fire: If Ryan cares, then why did he try to slash budgets for evidence-based programs that help children?
One of the new initiatives is “Challenging the Caricature,” based on a document that will be presented at an event at Stanford’s Hoover Institution next week. Written by Michael Horowitz, Michael Novak, John O’Sullivan, Mona Charen, Linda Chavez and other prominent conservatives, it calls on the right to tackle human rights issues so as to shatter “the caricatures that define conservatives as uncaring.”
“Our values are regarded by millions of Americans as inconsistent with theirs and with America’s inherent decency,” the document warns.
Ryan this month moderated a forum on poverty that drew six Republican presidential hopefuls and tried to frame a GOP perspective on the issue. “We now have a safety net that is designed to catch people falling into poverty,” Ryan said, “when what we really need is a safety net that is designed to help get people out of poverty.”
One reason for skepticism that any of this will get traction: Among the candidates who skipped the forum were the front-runners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Neither seems interested in this arena.
A final initiative is an excellent plan to reduce poverty put together by a team from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institution. The report pushes work requirements for government benefits but also a modest rise in the minimum wage. Instead of increasing public funds for higher education, it suggests taking financial assistance that now goes to higher-income families and redirecting it to the neediest.
This report emphasizes that one way to bridge the political divide is to focus on evidence. We now have robust results showing that vocational programs like career academies help disadvantaged young people get jobs and raise their marriage rates. Parent-coaching programs improve disadvantaged children’s outcomes so much that they save public money.
If you’re a liberal, you may be rolling your eyes. You’re sure that Republicans are just layering compassion camouflage over policies meant to benefit billionaires. Sure, be skeptical. But at least now there can be a debate about how to help, about what the evidence says, about whether Ryan and others act the way they speak.
The parties see each other as the root of all evil. But when they have cooperated on humanitarian efforts, real progress has been made: on AIDS, on prison rape, on the earned-income tax credit.
The sad truth is that neither party has done enough to address the shame of deep-rooted poverty in America. So let’s hope for a real contest in this area, because everybody loses — above all, America’s neediest — when most of the time one party doesn’t even bother to show up.