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Republicans Used to at Least Talk About Poverty. What Changed?

The Republican Party has never been confused with a nonprofit charity, but it was not so long ago that elements of the GOP enjoyed displaying a little human tenderness. Jack Kemp, the former football star and vice presidential nominee, is probably best known for his supply-side philosophy, but as a Congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he brought what The New York Times said was “more zeal to America's poverty problems than any national politician since Robert Kennedy.” Then there was George W. Bush. It is true that his “compassionate conservatism” served as an implicit rebuke to his fellow right-wingers; why affix the adjective unless conservatism has in the past been a little less than caring? But when he spoke of “armies of compassion”—charities, churches, nonprofit groups—and urged House Republicans not to balance the budget “on the backs of the poor,” he not only echoed his father’s talk of “a thousand points of light,” but also proved that a Republican could remain in the good graces of fellow conservatives while still displaying a bleeding heart.

It is easy to be cynical about Republican politicians who try to sound like social workers. And even when they were sincere—as was surely the case with Kemp—there remained a strong case for skepticism about how much capital gains tax cuts would really help the inner-city. But in the last few years, these few traces of compassion and caring seem to have vanished completely from the GOP. At the most recent Republican debate, members of the Tea Party audience applauded the idea that society should allow people without health insurance to die. (In the previous debate, Rick Perry was cheered for Texas’s astronomical number of executions; see our recent editorial here.) And the candidates themselves remain completely uninterested in talking about poverty, or the uninsured, or indeed anyone downtrodden, unless it is to stir resentment over how little those same people pay in taxes. It appears that compassion—even simply at the rhetorical level—is not just passé: it’s also a sign of weakness. What happened? If there is one person who shows how far the GOP has fallen on this score, it is, rather surprisingly, none other than Newt Gingrich.

IT MAY SEEM like ancient history, but in 1995, the year Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, Louis Farrakhan held his Million Man March in Washington. Here was a radical black Muslim anti-Semite (Farrakhan, I mean, not Gingrich) leading a march in the nation’s capital without even bothering to sound “moderate” or conciliatory. And what was the response of the most powerful member of the nation’s conservative political party? On the night of the march, the Speaker had this to say: “I don't think that any white conservative anywhere in America ought to look at Louis Farrakhan and just condemn him, without asking yourself where were you when the children died, where were you when the schools failed, where were you when they had no hope, and unless we're prepared to roll up our sleeves and we are prepared to reach out and to say, 'I'll give you an alternative . . .'” It is easy to say that Gingrich and the then-regnant GOP never offered much assistance to poor Americans, black or white: the welfare bill that Gingrich wanted to pass, for example, was notorious for its lack of compassion (Clinton eventually signed a less harsh version of welfare reform). But Gingrich also seemed to be someone who had thought about issues of urban poverty, who had taken note of the less fortunate members of society, and who felt it valuable to act as if they had needs.

One of Gingrich’s ideological lodestars in this era was a man named Marvin Olasky. Olasky would later become famous for outlining the philosophy behind Bush 43’s compassionate conservatism, but in the 1990s he had a brief period of fame when Gingrich distributed his book to Republican Congressmen. The Tragedy of American Compassion argued that private or faith-based charities were more effective than unwieldy government programs. After reading the book, Gingrich declared that “Our models are Alexis de Tocqueville and Marvin Olasky. We are going to redefine compassion and take it back. The issue is not whether Gingrich was sincere (although Arianna Huffington, among others, certainly spoke of Gingrich as a poverty-fighting prophet). Even if one believes he was only sounding compassionate for political reasons, Gingrich’s decision to speak in this manner, at the very least, shows that he thought his constituents would welcome a focus on such issues. Compassion at least appeared to be something worth striving for.

And today? Not only does the Republican Party preach huge cuts to social programs and tax cuts for the wealthy, but compassion is seen as nothing but part of “a radical secular agenda” (this is taken from Rick Perry’s book, Fed Up). Perry, who generally seems, well, skeptical about Darwin’s actual theories, seems to enjoy preaching what has come to be called Social Darwinism. His goal, he likes to say, is to make the federal government as inconsequential as possible. He has even managed to anger the former president by attacking compassionate conservatism. The Congressional wing of the party, meanwhile, is in thrall to the vision of Paul Ryan. Whereas Gingrich had GOPers read Olasky’s book, Ryan suggests, according to New York magazine, that his staff members read Ayn Rand, who was not known (and proudly so) for her warm heart.

As for Gingrich, the man who once thought that the Farrakhan agenda should not be completely ignored, he spends his time accusing the president of having a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview and of pandering to Islamists. It’s true he does occasionally talk about poverty programs. As he said of the current occupant of the White House recently, in a not so subtle play on racial fears, Obama is “the food stamp president.” How times have changed.

Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book at