So Paul Ryan and Mark Rubio regaled the audience at last night’s Jack Kemp Foundation’s award dinner with what might be called a two-pronged attack on the GOP’s present political problems. Ryan spent most of his time expressing great empathy for people–especially poor people–outside the current GOP voter coalition, clearly aiming to distance himself and his party from all the Randian talk about “the 47%” and “the takers” that used to be part of his own rhetoric brand. And Rubio, battling the widely held impression that he and other Republicans are empty suits with no ideas for governing, essayed something of a conservative think tank data dump.
Unfortunately for Rubio, his speech was a really old conservative think tank data dump. To the uninitiated, it sounded like he had a lot of new ideas. But it was mostly an assortment of chestnuts: expanded HSA’s and interstate insurance sales for health care; back-pack vouchers, private-school tax credits, and student loan transparency (along with an end to “discrimination” against online educators, which is code for laying off the for-profit schools) for education; congressional vetoes of regulations; and a bunch of vague shout-outs to fine work of the the small battalions of civil society. With the possible exception of the snuggle-bunnies aimed at for-profit colleges, the whole speech could have been delivered ten years ago. But in all fairness, it was more substantive than 95% of Mitt Romney’s speeches during the 2012 cycle.
Ryan’s speech was very light on policy but heavy on rhetorical repositioning. In remarks that might have been aimed at his own self, he scolded conservatives for failing to make sufficient efforts to explain to poor people why conservative policies were good for them. It was very much the same rap, with slightly different framing, that he offered earlier this year in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute about how essential it was for the “moral fiber” of poor people to liberate them from the “complacency and dependency” associated with government assistance.
What was missing, of course, was any admission that conservative policies might fail poor people even more dramatically than all that soul-destroying government-provided food, medicine, and housing. And despite the occasional ritualistic reference to the need for some sort of social safety net, and of course injunctions to his audience to support private charities, there was nothing that would disabuse poor people that Ryan’s main weapon for poverty-fighting was to abandon people in order that they might experience the bracing rigors of self-reliance.
I understand there is a big psychological difference between a conservative politics based on class warfare and active hatred of those people, and one that lovingly tells those people it’s time to bootstrap themselves up the economic ladder via marginally subsidized access to private health insurance or religious schools (where they might improve their “moral fiber,” of course). For some conservatives (e.g., the late Jack Kemp himself), the latter attitude might well be entirely genuine. But what links Rubio’s and Ryan’s speeches is that all the deep thinking and charitable sentiments today’s Republicans want to profess seem always to lead back to the same old crappy policies. Furrowing one’s brow or yelling “Love you, man!” at poor people doesn’t make a whole lot of real-world difference.