Watching the behavior of Republican politicians during the past several days, we are learning the true meaning of "compassionate conservatism." Not the public-relations version promoted by George W. Bush and his party propaganda apparatus, but the core philosophy enunciated by the deep thinkers of the religious right.
With legislative maneuvering designed to punish and deprive the least fortunate among us -- working people at the lower end of the American economy and their children -- the Republicans don't seem to be upholding the caring Christian ideals often proclaimed by the president. They're pushing down wages, snatching away tax credits and food stamps, slashing Medicaid and children's health insurance, and removing bankruptcy protections from families that suffer medical catastrophes. But they're extending tax cuts on dividends and capital gains and making sure that those bankruptcy laws still protect the richest deadbeats.
In short, they are stealing bread from the mouths of the poor and stuffing cake into the maws of the wealthy.
The bankruptcy "reform" currently pending in the Senate, for instance, would compound the misery of Americans already ruined by enormous medical expenses, which is what drives most filers to seek legal protection. The sponsors of this punitive act, which will further inflate the profits of credit card companies, rejected every amendment to discourage deceptive and extortionate lending practices, as well as every amendment to soften the impact on destitute veterans and others whose misfortune might ordinarily stir feelings of compassion.
Yet while the sponsors claimed that their only purpose was to stop "abuse" of bankruptcy laws, their bill will still allow every grifter to lawyer up and sequester his pelf in an "asset protection trust," an investment vehicle that limits legal liability, often by using offshore bank accounts. The clever rich will thus be exempt from the same laws that will be used from now on to denude poorer people. (At least a dozen Democrats have signed their disgraced names onto this billion-dollar gift certificate for the credit industry.)
Those poorer people won't be seeing any increase in their pitiful wages anytime soon, either, thanks to the Senate Republicans. Voting almost uniformly along party lines, the majority killed what would have been the first increase in the federal minimum wage since 1998. A recent poll showed that more than four out of five Americans favor this measure, evidently because they cherish the quaint notion that people who work for a living should be able to feed and shelter their children.
Led by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., some of the Republicans supported an alternative bill that paired a small increase in the minimum wage with clever language stripping wage and hour protections from millions of workers and largely negating the effect of the raise. Indeed, Santorum more or less admitted that his bill was a fraud, designed to give Republicans cover while they killed the real increase: According to the Detroit Free Press, "Santorum discouraged senators from voting for either proposal, indicating that an upcoming effort to update welfare laws would be a better vehicle for the minimum wage."
Meanwhile, the House Republicans are not hesitating to trample upon those who are already beaten down. In their version of the 2006 federal budget, Medicaid would lose as much as $20 billion, at a time when state governments are already under severe pressure in sustaining the program. This will inevitably mean depriving poor people of health coverage. Those cuts will also diminish the states' capacity to enroll low-income kids in the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Their parents shouldn't expect too much assistance from the government at tax time, either. The Republican budget decrees reductions in the Earned Income Tax Credit program, a highly successful effort to supplement the income of the working poor that was even supported by the late President Reagan.
None of that money will be wasted, of course. Every dollar taken from poor and working families pays for the preservation of tax breaks on dividends and capital gains for investors, most of them earning no less than $200,000 a year.
The savage litany could go on, and no doubt will.
Appalling as these policies may be, however, they are in no sense inconsistent with the cosmology of the religious right, which melds laissez-faire economics with fundamentalist orthodoxy. Underlying these conservative attacks on the poor by professing Christians is a worldview that dates back to earlier centuries, when the church defended privilege and declared that the wealthy and powerful were God's elect. From that perspective, minimum wages, subsidized healthcare, and other such laws and regulations only corrupt the poor, who must earn charity by their temporal and spiritual submission.
If these ideas sound a bit old-fashioned -- or even primitive -- be assured that they represent the latest thinking on the evangelical far right, which is where "compassionate conservatism" originated. Guided by the most literal interpretation of Old Testament law, the preachers who have influenced the president are determined to undermine every modern protection enjoyed by poor and working-class Americans. Let's hope they draw the line at bringing back public whippings and debt slavery.