Republicans Can't Stay Neutral in the War on Poverty

Can the tea party corral support for actual anti-poverty legislation?

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Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress and declared war. "It will not be a short or easy struggle," he warned the lawmakers. "No single weapon nor strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won." With those words of resolve, Johnson launched his War on Poverty.

The 50-year anniversary of the War on Poverty comes just as debates on income inequality have moved to the forefront of American politics. After President Obama called income inequality "the defining challenge of our time," Democrats unveiled a 2014 agenda that includes extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.

But they're not the only ones starting the new year focused on inequality: Tea party Republicans are launching their own war on poverty.

In mid-November Republican Sen. Mike Lee – who Time magazine called "the understated, policy-oriented leader behind the Defund Obamacare movement" – traded government shutdowns for policy speeches. Addressing the Heritage Foundation's Anti-Poverty Forum, he said, "I believe the American people are poised to launch a new, bold, and heroic offensive in the war on poverty … if a renewed conservative movement has the courage to lead it."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

There seems to be no shortage of tea party senators willing to lead that offensive. Paul Ryan has been quietly working on his own anti-poverty plan, which emphasizes tax code reform and private charity. Even Marco Rubio has a poverty agenda, which he teased in a YouTube video released Sunday (though the only policy he clearly mentioned was the well-worn pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare).

In turning their attention to poverty, the senate's tea party leaders join a long line of Republicans. Though he often spoke out against it as meddlesome government intervention, Richard Nixon oversaw a substantial expansion of the War on Poverty. He signed into law WIC – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – and transformed food stamps into a national program. By the end of his presidency, the food-stamp program's reach had grown from 3 million to 15 million Americans.

In the 1990s, Jack Kemp emerged as the GOP's poverty warrior. As the head of Housing and Urban Development during George H.W. Bush's administration, Kemp touted "a conservative war on poverty." He sought to privatize public housing and to establish enterprise zones to draw businesses into low-income neighborhoods. But turf wars and Bush's indifference insured Kemp's plans never got off the ground. 

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

Like Kemp, tea party politicians face an uphill battle in their right-wing war on poverty. They have a significant image problem in the wake of the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent comments left the distinct impression Republicans don't care about the poor. Their recent votes to slash food stamp funds and dramatically reduce unemployment benefits did not help change that impression. Moreover, the new poverty warriors have so far only slapped a new label on the same warmed-over policy ideas of the past, like school vouchers and tax credits. Even if the GOP could overcome these issues and create an innovative anti-poverty agenda, getting the base to sign on seems like a tall order.

Yet Republicans know they must do something. The Democrats have front-loaded their anti-poverty agenda with popular proposals. A recent poll found 66 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage. Majorities likewise approve the extension of unemployment benefits. While the GOP spent much of 2013 displaying a willful indifference to public opinion, the upcoming midterm elections seem to have changed the party's calculus.

To be sure, the impending elections will not cause Republicans to sign off on the Democratic agenda. But tea party Republicans have clearly decided they cannot ignore the issue of inequality any longer. The question is whether they will be able to corral support for actual legislation, or whether the tea party war on poverty will only ever be a war of words.

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