You, liberal reader, probably think of Ted Cruz as this vicious neo-McCarthyite crank who is raging around Washington threatening not so much Democrats as the imaginary RINOs who control his political party.

But the image he’s projecting to his fellow-conservatives, and that he’d like the GOP to project nationally, is very different: he’s a sweet huggy-bear who thinks Republicans lose elections because–I know this is hard to believe, but it’s true–people perceive that they don’t care about less-fortunate people. That’s gotta change, Cruz recently explained in Miami at the Cuban-Democracy PAC luncheon, via the Florida conservative blog The Shark Tank:

I think why Republicans did so poorly in the Hispanic community this last election was not primarily immigration, I think it was two words- 47 percent. And by that I don’t mean that unfortunate comment… What I mean is the narrative of the last election. The 47% percent who are dependent on government- we don’t have to worry about them. I can’t think of an idea that is more antithetical to what we believe as conservatives and Americans than that idea.

“Republicans did a poor job last time around…is making the case to the single mom, making the case to the young African American, the young Hispanic coming out of school looking for his first job that the party of opportunity is a party that allows and encourages small businesses to thrive and encourages economic growth.”

You hear this a lot from conservatives. The I’m-with-the-rich-because-I-love-the-poor rap is a hardy perennial that was bequeathed to the Right by the late Jack Kemp, who probably actually believed it. One of Kemp’s proteges, a guy named Paul Ryan, spoke at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner in December, and justified his screw-the-poor budget policies as a deeper form of agape love for those who had been failed by the welfare state. Here’s a taste from the deep well of his compassion:

Not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone. Americans are a compassionate people. And there’s a consensus in this country about our obligations to the most vulnerable. Those obligations are beyond dispute. The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government – by voluntary action or by government action.

I like that. Not every economic or social problem can be ignored because the Market Knows Best. Some people may need help in the form of “voluntary action!” Let’s hear it for charity!

What’s never been clear to me is whether this Empowerment Conservative rhetoric is ultimately designed to appeal to poor and minority folk (if so, it’s failed dismally over the decades), to the news media, or to the tender consciences of conservatives themselves. Some media folk seem to find it a revelation whenever Republicans don’t look and sound like Daddy Warbucks, which is why Kemp always got such good press, and probably why the people surrounding George W. Bush thought “compassionate conservatism” was such a great marketing slogan.

What’s interesting about the version of this pseudo-ideology being embraced by Ryan and Cruz is that there is not one ounce of the old moderate-Republican noblesse oblige in it, with its compromises with the welfare state on behalf of the little people. No, for these new Empowerers love for the poor isn’t genuine unless it involves the full, ruthless destruction of the public support that has enslaved everyone dependent on it. They kind of remind me of the medieval priests who viewed the killing of heretics as the supreme act of charity, saving souls through the destruction of the body.

So it’s probably more a salve to their own (and their supporters’) consciences than a marketing tactic for people like Ryan and Cruz to promote their policy views as pretty much what Jesus would support if he were a Member of Congress. If it becomes necessary to love the poor to death, they’re up to the task.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.