At MSNBC today, Tim Noah makes an argument that progressives and MSM types need to listen to carefully if they are to understand the dynamics of the current debates over poverty and the federal budget. Despite a general impression (created by its association with Ronald Reagan, and strengthened by occasional conservative efforts to “reform” it) that the Earned Income Tax Credit is the one low-income program Republicans invariably smile upon, it’s actually been the source of a lot of disagreement on the Right:

The much-praised House GOP tax reform introduced last week would cut the EITC, even though a House GOP report excoriating most federal assistance to the poor singled out the program for applause.

This new partisan difference over the EITC – a program that in the past has been a rare source of bipartisan agreement – speaks volumes about Republicans’ newfound ambivalence toward the working poor….

Welfare reform should have ended the partisan scrimmage over welfare dependency. Instead, it merely shifted the goalposts. Previously, the GOP had praised the “deserving” (i.e., working) poor even as it derided the “dependent” (i.e., welfare-collecting) poor. But with Clinton’s abolition of long-term assistance and imposition of work requirements, it became more difficult to isolate a class of nonworking, government-dependent poor that Republicans could reliably scapegoat. So they gradually came to rebrand as “dependent” any low-income person who collected government assistance, even if that person also had a job. In effect, conservatives broadened their definition of “welfare” to the breaking point, including food stamps (most of which go to people with jobs), Medicaid (a benefit you collect only if you get sick), and even Pell Grants.

The EITC wasn’t targeted explicitly. But it ran afoul of a growing doctrine put forth by then-Rep. Jim DeMint, R.-S.C., and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, that said too many lower-income people were getting away with paying no income tax. The theory was that too many of them were getting too used to the idea that government was all benefit and no cost (a formulation that overlooked the many regressive state, local, and federal payroll taxes already being paid by the poor). House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor cautiously signed on – the usual code phrase was “broaden the base”—before a version of this construct (“the 47%”) helped blow up Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. An interesting debate ensued on the right, with no particular resolution about whether conservatives should boast about inventing the EITC or quietly favor its demise.

Regular readers know that this is a development I’ve harped on a lot in the past, not just in the context of the claim that EITC beneficiaries are “lucky duckies,” but more broadly in the Republican assault on Obamacare, whose main beneficiaries are the working poor (and working sick). To a large extent, conservatives have made the working poor the “new welfare queens.”

The trend that both Tim and I have written about has an interesting recent history. There was a big moment in 1999 when GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush blasted a House-passed budget resolution that would have delayed EITC payments, pitting him against fellow Texan Tom DeLay. This was one of Bush’s main “compassionate conservative” gestures going into the 2000 elections.

Now it’s not at all clear Bush’s position would prevail within the GOP. And as Noah suggests, current GOP efforts to beef up the EITC for childless adults (a goal they seem to share with the president) may wind up disguising simultaneous efforts to scale back the credit for its original beneficiaries–not to mention other “work supports” like SNAP, Medicaid, and of course, the Obamacare subsidies.

This bears close watching.

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.