The return of the welfare queen

Healthcare reform has brought back the right's favorite wedge issue -- government handouts for the "undeserving"

Published August 31, 2009 10:29AM (EDT)

Michael Steele speaks after being elected Republican National Committee chairman in Washington January 30, 2009.
Michael Steele speaks after being elected Republican National Committee chairman in Washington January 30, 2009.

The healthcare reform debate took a rather remarkable turn last week when the Washington Post published an Op-Ed piece by Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele telling retirees that his party would fight any effort to modify the benefits they derived from the government-run Medicare program in order to offer similar benefits to others. The Op-Ed was immediately supplemented by an item on the RNC Web page trumpeting a "Seniors' Health Care Bill of Rights," similarly pledging the GOP to a to-the-death defense of Medicare benefits and procedures, allegedly under dire threat from universal health coverage.

Steele's gambit mainly got attention because it was laughably in conflict with nearly a half century of Republican attacks on Medicare, and because he adopted every ludicrous made-up claim about the impact of this or that health reform bill on Medicare. In a disastrous NPR interview later in the week, the GOP chieftain had a predictably difficult time explaining why the GOP wanted to "protect" Medicare because it was so bad a program that it couldn't withstand any "raids."

But in all the well-deserved mockery of Steele, what went largely unnoticed was his implicit attempt to stoke resentment of the uninsured by the insured – more specifically, those insured by what Republicans normally call "socialized medicine." He referred to retirees, present and future, as "the greatest generation" (a rather anachronistic reference since today's 65-year-olds were actually born in 1944) whose right to exactly those Medicare benefits they currently receive should not be sacrificed to Obama's "healthcare experiment." At another point, Steele suggested that Democrats were trying to ration healthcare so as to make procedures less available to seniors, and more available to "young and middle-aged people."

After many months of conservative claims that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are determined to engineer a "government takeover" of the private sector in order to "redistribute" income, Steele is upping the ante to suggest that Obama wants to redistribute healthcare – and perhaps even the opportunity to take another breath – as well.

This should be familiar to any political observer over the age of 30 as a new version of the old "welfare wedge": the emotionally powerful conservative argument that Democrats want to use Big Government to take away the good things of life from people who have earned them and give them to people who haven't.

The "welfare wedge" largely disappeared from national political life in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform initiative that eliminated any federal entitlement to cash assistance for families, imposed a work requirement for temporary assistance, and generated, for a while at least, a massive reduction in "welfare" caseloads.

It returned during the latter stages of the 2008 presidential campaign, when conservative gabbers and ultimately the McCain-Palin campaign attacked Barack Obama's tax proposals as a "redistributive" effort to offer "welfare" by boosting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit – by definition eligible only to families with earned income and stiff payroll tax liability. This was interesting not only because the EITC had long been a staple of conservative social policy, but because previous efforts to call refundable EITC payments "welfare" had been denounced by George W. Bush and John McCain.

After the election, the "welfare" treatment of Obama's tax policies was echoed by similar conservative rhetoric about proposals to help homebuyers getting hammered by the mortgage and real estate collapse. Most famously, CNBC financial reporter Rick Santelli became a right-wing folk hero for a rant about the injustice of being asked to help the "losers" who took out mortgages they should have known they couldn't pay. This was at about the same time as Republican members of Congress began handing out copies of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," with its prophecy of a dystopic society in which socialist "looters" and Christian "altruists" had brought the United States to its knees, and some conservative agitators began urging "productive" Americans to emulate Rand's plutocratic heroes by "going Galt" and refusing to contribute to the welfare state. The "tea party" movement that ramped up in opposition to Obama's economic stimulus proposals was heavily freighted with this sort of revolt-of-the-producers attitude.

Unsurprisingly, the new "welfare wedge" has been very evident in the opposition to healthcare reform, even before Michael Steele made it clear that "socialism" for "the greatest generation" was worth defending so long as it wasn't extended to the currently uninsured.

What's most interesting, and dangerous, about the new "welfare wedge" is that it's not about poor people who don't work for a living. After all, most very poor families often already have health insurance (depending on where they live) via Medicaid, and those who don't work these days generally don't have the option of working. The target of "welfare" shouters seems to be the working poor, or middle-class minority families who are struggling to stay in the middle class.

And that brings me to the most difficult issue: It's really hard to say how much race has to do with the new "welfare wedge." It was certainly central to the old one. It's hard to ignore that the angry protesters at tea party and town hall protests are virtually all white. You can't ignore Obama's own race, or the attacks on both the president and the first lady as "black nationalists." And the ongoing conservative obsession with ACORN, a minority-oriented (if marginally significant) grassroots advocacy group – an obsession that has played a central role in every right-wing attack on the Obama agenda before and after the 2008 elections – is significant.

But you don't have to be a liberal, or a Democrat, or an Obama supporter to be concerned about the return of the "welfare wedge" and with it the savage treatment of hard-pressed working Americans as irresponsible bums who are conspiring toward a socialist society. Many libertarian-conservatives, who view much of the pre-Obama status quo ante as unacceptably "socialist," are probably as disgusted by Michael Steele's Mediscare tactics as I am. But we need to get these tactics out into the open and expose them for what they are.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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Healthcare Reform John Mccain R-ariz. Michael Steele