Compassionate conservatism, as a brand, has been out of vogue for nearly a decade now. After Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008, the GOP’s right wing asserted that ideological impurity had doomed the party. Too much spending, too many programs, not enough cuts – these explained the party’s misfortune. It was an explanation wholly divorced from political reality, but the GOP largely accepted it; witness its continued rightward march.
Any politician who aims to ascend the Republican ranks, then, must rhetorically disown the big government conservatism espoused by George W. Bush, he of the Medicare prescription drug benefit program and the No Child Left Behind law. So there was Indiana congressman Mike Pence at the 2006 Conservative Political Action Conference, denouncing compassionate conservatism for putting the GOP at risk of “becoming the party of big government.”
But Pence, who became Indiana’s governor in 2013, has nonetheless attempted to cultivate an image as a Republican who cares. Earlier this year, he bucked many fellow Republican governors by announcing plans to expand Indiana’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. Liberals, conservatives, and the mainstream press cited Pence’s move as evidence of a revived compassionate conservatism, provoking grumbles on the libertarian right.
The devil was in the details of Pence’s Medicaid plan, however. “[U]nlike traditional Medicaid,” the New York Times observed, “the plan would require many participants to make monthly contributions toward the cost of coverage.” Advocates for the poor have criticized Pence’s plan, and five months after he announced it, the governor has yet to reach an agreement with the federal government on expanding the program. The episode has been a reminder that, as with Bush, compassionate conservatism is largely a marketing strategy, not a governing philosophy that has empirically improved the lives of poor and working class people.
Another reminder came today, with the news that Pence plans to kick 65,000 Indianans off of food stamps. Pence has rejected a waiver of federal guidelines – established under Bill Clinton’s 1996 “welfare reform” law – that require able-bodied, childless adults who receive food stamps for more than three months per year to prove that they’re either working or in job training at least 20 hours each week. Because states can waive those rules during economic downturns, Indiana joined other states in waiving the requirements. But even though, as ThinkProgress’ Alan Pyke notes, there are still two job applicants for every opening nationwide, Pence has decided to reinstate the rules, making Indiana the eighth state to do so in recent years.
Reporting on the Pence administration’s announcement, the Indianapolis Star spoke with the executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks; Ohio reinstated work rules last year. “Most who lost their benefits relied instead on food pantries, churches and soup kitchens. Some turned to begging or searching in trash bins for food,” the Star reported. Moreover, “[o]f the 2,541 adults who lost benefits in Ohio's Franklin County, 1 in 3 had poor physical or mental health.”
Such statistics will make no difference to Pence and his crew. To the Tea Party-era GOP, the unemployed are a bunch of lazy bums who, in John Boehner’s words, would “just rather sit around” than find work. Viewing long-term unemployment as a moral failing – rather than the sad outcome of an economy that hasn’t recovered for much of the 99 percent, an economy in which the longer one lacks a job, the harder it becomes to get a new one – conservatives have slashed unemployment benefits to the point that barely a quarter of out-of-work Americans draw any type of jobless benefit.
Pence, who reportedly hopes to be his party's standard-bearer in 2016, is already beloved among social conservatives. With his latest announcement, he's poised to make a strong bid for the votes of the GOP's callousness caucus.