Poverty is all the rage among conservatives this week, and will be for, oh, another few days at least. My guess is that this is happening largely because Democrats have made clear that income inequality is the issue they'll be pressing from now until the November midterm elections, and Republicans are concerned that it might work. So they're going to head it off by showing voters that they care about people who are struggling, too. The question is, how do you do that when you're fighting against extending unemployment benefits, trying to cut food stamps, preventing poor people from getting health insurance through Medicaid, and arguing against increasing the minimum wage?
The answer, it seems, it to make public statements in which the word "poverty" appears. Marco Rubio and Eric Cantor gave speeches on it, Paul Ryan will be doing interviews on it, and you'll probably be hearing more from Republicans on the topic. Mixed in will be some advocacy for policies they've pushed for a long time like school vouchers, and the occasional grand if counterproductive idea, like turning over all federal antipoverty programs to the states.
In seeing this, I couldn't help but think about one of my favorite tidbits from the 2004 presidential campaign, the Bush website's "Compassion Photo Album," which consisted entirely of photos of George and/or Laura Bush hanging out with black and Hispanic people. Put aside how condescending it was to present the very fact of talking to a black person as an exercise in "compassion," as though they were so pathetic that it took a mighty act of generosity for Bush to deign to place himself amongst them. The point is that things like that, and "compassionate conservatism" in general, were never about winning the votes of minorities. It was about showing moderate white voters that Bush was, in the phrase that was so often applied to him by the press when he first ran in 2000, "a different kind of Republican." When he weighed in on a 1999 Republican budget proposal by saying, "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," he wasn't speaking to poor people, he was showing middle class people that he had a heart.
Republicans are doing the same thing now. The fact is that views in the GOP toward poor people run from active hostility at worst to indifference at best. I'm not saying your average Republican wouldn't be pleased if cutting the capital gains tax did trickle down to the little guy, but even if it doesn't, they're still eager to do it because their hearts are with the wealthy. Conservatives see wealth as an expression of virtue; if you have it, it's because you work hard and deserve it, and if you don't, that reflects a defect in your character. That's why so many of their proposals to address poverty are either of the "tough love" variety—have the government stop helping you as a means of encouraging you to get a firm grip on those bootstraps—or things like "enterprise zones" that involve giving tax breaks and exemptions from environmental regulations to wealthy investors and corporations, in the belief that the largesse will trickle down.
The political problem Republicans are trying to address is that, deny it though they might and protest it with cries of "Class warfare!", economic populism has always been effective for Democrats. That's partly because it speaks to people's genuine sentiments about their own struggles and how society should work, and partly because Republicans are the party of the rich. They'd prefer not to be seen that way, of course. But they just are. So when Democrats say "They're the party of the rich!", they don't have to do a lot of persuading, since it's what voters already believe. A few speeches about poverty aren't going to change that.