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Republicans Renew Focus on Poverty

Republicans Renew Focus on Poverty

By Scott Conroy - December 6, 2012

Eight months before “the 47 percent” became shorthand for Mitt Romney’s seeming lack of empathy for struggling Americans, the former Massachusetts governor made smaller headlines with a another ill-considered remark, which also bolstered perceptions that he was dismissive of the nation’s underclass.

The morning after his crucial victory in the Florida primary, Romney appeared on CNN and paraphrased a line from his stump speech that he had been delivering for months.

“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he said. “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”

Amid the blowback that resulted, Lawrence Mead -- a renowned expert on poverty, whose ideas played an instrumental role in welfare reform during the 1990s -- offered to help clean up the mess. Mead had previously served as an adviser to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign on the issue -- a role that he was willing to reprise on behalf of the 2012 GOP nominee, he suggested in an email to a Romney campaign official.

“They didn’t react at all [to the offer], and I think it’s because they just didn’t want to address the issue,” recalled Mead, who currently teaches a class at NYU on the politics of poverty and welfare. “They wanted to have it go away, and it was [Paul] Ryan who gave that one speech where there was some attention paid, but it was never a prominent issue in the campaign.”

Through the tens of millions of dollars he has donated and the countless hours he has spent on charitable undertakings, Romney had shown a lifelong commitment to helping the poor. But Ryan’s late-October speech in Cleveland was the only time the campaign focused an event on the ticket’s vision for combating poverty in the United States.

Mead says there is good reason to believe that future Republican presidential candidates will do better.

“The public wants government to help, but they also want to see the poor help themselves, and they don’t see those things as opposites, whereas in the elite discourse, they are opposites,” Mead said. “The public wants both. They want generosity and they also want demands. Therefore, a policy that emphasizes that can be effective in currying public favor.”

On Tuesday night, Ryan took a significant step in projecting conservative views on combating poverty when he joined Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at a Washington dinner sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation. Kemp -- the former congressman and 1996 GOP vice-presidential nominee -- was a longtime standard-bearer within the Republican Party on issues related to the poor and urban development.

During their speeches, the potential 2016 presidential candidates made clear their desire to expand opportunities for the nation’s underclass.

Noting that Kemp had been his mentor in Congress, Ryan delivered an indirect rebuttal to the sentiment that appeared to pervade Romney’s attitude -- an attitude seemingly reflected in a post-election comment that his defeat resulted from President Obama providing “gifts” to the poor and other groups.

“Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters,’ but Republicans must steer far clear of that trap,” Ryan said. “We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American. I believe we can turn the engines of upward mobility back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America, but it’s going to require a bold departure from the approach that government has taken for the last five decades.”

In keeping with his party’s small-government ethos, Ryan decried what he called the nation’s “bloated, top-down anti-poverty programs,” which he said perpetuated a “culture of dependency.” Nonetheless, he did not mince words about the seriousness of the problem.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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