AEI Chief Says GOP Needs Agenda for the Poor

A blog about business and economics.
May 16 2013 10:28 AM

AEI Chief: To Win Latino Votes, The GOP Needs an Agenda to Help Poor Poeple

arthur brooks
Arthur Brooks

AEI photo

American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks has a perceptive op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the fact that Hispanics have a much lower voter turnout rate than non-Hispanics, and there's considerable evidence that non-voting Hispanics are more conservative than Hispanic voters. What could get those people to turn out and vote Republican? Brooks correctly notes that ranting against the evils of Latino immigration probably doesn't help (not, I might add, does the fact that one of AEI's leading scholars agrees that the genetic inferiority of Hispanics should be a major factor in shaping public policy). But he also correctly notes that Hispanics are very concerned about the fate of the poor, and a Republican Party that wants to win their votes needs to make a pitch on this score.

I think that's all really solid, and I hope lots of conservatives read it.

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The problem, of course, is that Brooks' proposed solution looks an awful lot like nothing more than reframing. He argues that social conservatism is, objectively speaking, a pro poor people position. I don't think that's right, but fair enough. The real problem comes on economic policy, where his big idea about helping poor people is to cut Social Security and Medicare spending:

First, make it clear that the safety net for the indigent and needy is not the source of our fiscal problems. It is the safety net for everyone else—the able-bodied, the middle class, and corporate cronies—that is driving our country to insolvency.
Without real reform of Social Security, Medicare and special-interest public spending, we will have insolvency followed by austerity, and this will hit the poor the hardest (just ask a Spaniard). Spending and entitlement reforms are pro-poor policies.

This is the kind of thing that could be true, but Brooks needs to clarify that in order for it to actually be true the GOP would need to change its policies. The budget House Republicans have written cuts $0 in Medicare spending over the next ten years. It cuts $0 dollars in Social Security spending ever. It increases national defense spending. It sharply cuts cuts rates on high-income families. And it balances the budget. So who loses out? Poor people. It is true that starting in Year 11, the House GOP budget begins to cut Medicare spending. But it does so in a way that does very little to protect the interests of low-income retirees. And the cuts to Medicare are not used to avoid cuts in programs for the poor. In fact, the cuts to Medicare are not even used to avoid tax hikes on the poor. The style of tax reform favored by the House GOP ensures that along with spending on programs for the poor being cut, working class families will pay more in taxes.

Just to sum up—the actually existing GOP agenda overwhelmingly suggests that not only do Republicans think that government spending is bad, but also that government spending on the poor is an especially pernicious form of spending. They appear to believe that taxes are bad, but that taxes on the poor are an especially benign form of taxes. As Brooks notes, this works for Republicans as an electoral strategy because white voters by and large are not that concerned about the fate of poor people. But as Brooks also notes, it's a strategy that doesn't work if Republicans want to secure Hispanic votes. But to change it would require an actual turnaround in public policy.

It's a bit hard to know how to read Brooks' op-ed in that light. He's a political operator, not a journalist. It's possible that he's fully aware that the Republican Party is committed to a savage war against the economic interests of poor people and simply thinks that talking nice is the optimal strategy for shifting GOP policy. It's also possible that he's totally clueless. And it's also possible that he is personally committed to this anti-poor person agenda but thinks it's possible to adopt rhetorical strategies that disguise its existence. The fact that just last week the main architect of the GOP's soak the poor budget was given AEI's major award is, I think, suggestive. But whatever is going on in Brooks' head, he's right that economic policy is at the core of the GOP's Latino problem.

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