Republicans love poor people now

The party that forever demonized struggling Americans now realizes it needs them, in order to survive. Oops

Published March 23, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

It's safe to say that the Republican Party's recent decision to “relaunch” itself and suddenly reach out to poor people is motivated more by a naked desire to win votes, than by some Gandhi-like benevolence. If the party's policy platforms -- highlighted by an Edward Scissorhands-like budget that slices programs for the indigent -- weren't a dead giveaway, the RNC's new ballyhooed strategy plan comes right out and says it.

And yet, despite its dubious origins, the party's new approach is a striking statement regarding the political power — and numbers — of lower-income people in this country: Rather than dismiss, slur or divide poorer Americans (as in prior elections), Republicans have now made the political calculation that they've no choice but to talk directly to them and win their votes.

It bears reminding, this is the Republican Party whose iconic political heartthrob famously demonized "welfare queens," and whose current "leaders" recently referred to Barack Obama as the “food stamp president.” It’s the party that has almost exclusively talked about poor people, not to them – and when it did mention them, it often was to attack and engender resentment from others (or to express their lack of concern for them).

“The notion that Republicans now say they have to talk to everyday poor people, that they have to present their ideas in a way that struggling Americans see as valuable, is a real shift,” the Rev. David Beckmann, president of the influential anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, tells Salon. “The ideas have to be, in fact valuable, too. And they haven’t yet come up with a real agenda. But just making the shift to say that it’s in our self-interest to pay attention to what Latinos and African-Americans and low-income whites think is a big change.”

In describing the new strategy to start talking to poor Americans, the aforementioned strategy document says (emphasis mine):

The Republican Party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life. Low-income Americans are hard-working people who want to become hard-working middle-income Americans. Middle-income Americans want to become upper-middle-income, and so on. We need to help everyone make it in America.

Echoing that message, former Sen. Jim DeMint wrote in a Washington Times Op-Ed Friday, “We must take our message of freedom and opportunity for all and connect with every neighborhood in America.” And former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson used his perch at the Washington Post on the same day to press for Republican plans for “child poverty.”

That talk of low-income Americans being hardworking represents more than a small departure from what we heard in the 2012 campaign. Why the change? A new bout of empathy? Again, that strategy document:

The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious [Republicans’] position has become. America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal … the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction.

In other words, political reality – and sheer math (over 46 million people now live below the poverty line) – is now forcing a major political party to speak to poor Americans. Just as support for marriage equality has risen as more and more Americans know gay people, the growing number of poor people now makes it increasingly likely an American voter will either be struggling — or know someone who is. Which means vilifying that group no longer has the political currency it once did.

“One of the biggest brand challenges for the GOP is to credibly demonstrate they are a party for everyone, not just the rich,” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, who has focused on ways to grow her party, tells Salon. She adds that a survey she conducted of young voters in August asked those with a negative view of the Republican Party why they felt that way. “We made a word cloud out of the verbatim responses, and the No. 1 word? 'Rich.'”

This breakdown of the 2012 election by income range seems to echo her finding:

In other words, Republicans are changing their approach as a matter of political survival. Which is precisely the point.

Political survival, for both major parties, hasn’t always entailed talking to people at the bottom of the economic ladder. In the 2012 campaign, poverty was at levels we hadn’t seen since Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964, and yet, neither nominee spoke often about the problem. Yes, there were key differences between the ways the parties addressed the issue policy-wise: Paul Ryan hoped to slash $1.4 million from Medicaid, while Barack Obama had extended eligibility to many more Americans through the Affordable Care Act. But in terms of messaging, both parties set their sights far more on the middle class -- partly because most voters, even poor ones, see themselves that way. (Beckmann notes: “Obama's State of the Union address has got more promising ideas for poor people than any presidential speech in decades, but he didn't use the word 'poverty.' His people are still being very calculating about not using the P word.”)

And the problem goes back far longer than that. As mentioned, Ronald Reagan became a Republican icon by demonizing so-called "welfare queens" in his 1976 presidential campaign. Railing against a made-up woman in Chicago with “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards” and a “tax-free income alone … over $150,000” the future president not only issued an attack on supposed big government, but helped enshrine a political villain whose sting would continue to reap political rewards for politicians decades later.

The portrayal of welfare recipients as a scourge on society continued apace in the 1990s when Democratic President Bill Clinton proudly worked with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to pass the sweeping Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act to "end welfare as we know it." Clinton would trumpet his record of having worked “to transform our broken welfare system by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and family.”

In the following decade, Republican President George W. Bush would vow to practice a “compassionate conservatism,” the closest recent comparison to what the party seeks to do now. As BuzzFeed's Ben Smith argues, "Now the Republican National Committee is returning to Bush's original vision. The question is which policies — and in particular, what vision for solving poverty — will accompany that push."

But ultimately, the 2000 campaign's rhetorical attention to lower-income Americans ended up being less about winning poor people’s votes (Bush would lose every income group under $50,000) than fulfilling three other goals: reassuring moderate voters that he was not cold-hearted, connecting with religious Americans and speaking to the "givers" of compassion, rather than the recipients. And as Smith notes, the party's attention to the issue would be gone months into Bush's presidency, which would become consumed instead by appeals to national defense.

“'Compassionate conservative' was just a catchphrase," says Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a leader on poverty issues in the House. "They were never interested in winning that constituency.”

“They weren’t talking to poor, hungry people. Most of that rhetoric was talking to well-off people about hungry people,” Beckmann agrees. “This is absolutely different. There’s now a very widespread understanding [in the Republican Party] that it's not just that they need to appeal to kindhearted people, but they really have to reach lower-income people to win elections.”

Soltis Anderson, the GOP pollster, says that Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was “probably more than just a branding gimmick,” noting he pursued reform to education and immigration, and picked up a decent number of Hispanic voters.

But she suggests the party's mind-set is different this time around. “I think the party today has realized that their core base of voters is not large enough and needs to be expanded, and that means looking for new Republican voters in every neighborhood, at every income level,” she says. “It means Republican candidates directly talking to and campaigning in places and to communities they may have written off before.”

So with Paul Ryan talking about poverty, and Eric Cantor about low-income Americans, does the attention from Republicans mean poor Americans have arrived politically? McGovern adds a reality check. “Are you kidding me? This Ryan budget [the GOP House] just passed is even worse than last year,” he notes, of a plan that would slash basic programs for lower-income Americans. “Their approach to politics is so cynical. It's all about posturing and spin, and buzzwords. And it's not about any real concrete actions.”

It's true that Republican consultants and operatives understand they need to win the votes of lower-income voters, and are prepared to adjust their plan. But that's a far cry from actual lawmakers getting the message and changing their approach.

“Republicans are looking at the election results and realizing that the world is changing, and that unless they’re successful in continuing to suppress votes of poor people and minorities, they need to actually win them over,” McGovern adds. “I’m glad they want to talk to them, but I hope they listen. That’s been the problem. They do a lot of talking, but not a lot of listening.”

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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