GOP Candidates Trade Ideas, Not Barbs, At Poverty Forum

It’s easy to think of the Republican primary race as a gladiator-style, winner-take-all, bloodbath in which attacks ads are the norm and debates are decided based on who landed the most zingers. But what’s often forgotten amidst that media-friendly narrative is that these candidates have big hearts and big ideas, and what may come as an even greater shock: they tend to agree on a lot of things.

One of those things is that conservative principles hold the key to reducing the effects of poverty. Now I know what many of you are thinking: Why are we talking about poverty? The left-leaning among you are likely fuming at the thought that Republicans have any standing to address the issue, a stance that speaks to the caricature of conservatism that Democrats have created (and in some ways Republicans have fostered). And our right-leaning readers are likely more comfortable discussing ways to improve the economy and reduce the deficit, but get a little queasy at the thought of addressing one socioeconomic class (especially one that traditionally favors Democrats).

But when we extol the benefits of free enterprise and discuss the power of free markets, we can’t ignore that the poor among us are assets to be unleashed towards greater prosperity, not liabilities to manage with tax-funded programs. That was the message delivered by the six Republican candidates for president who gathered earlier this month at the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity.

It was a powerful event that would have made Kemp–who brought supply-side economics into the mainstream and carried antipoverty policy to the forefront of the conservative movement–proud. For at least a day, it turned the presidential race into a battle of ideas rather than personalities. And one thing that everyone agreed on? That the government’s current attempts to alleviate poverty are doing little more than trapping people in it.

“We’ve been fighting a war on poverty for over 50 years now, and I don’t think you conclude anything other than this war is a stalemate,” said Paul Ryan, who moderated the event. “We’ve treated poverty like they’re potholes that need to be filled up and then we move on.”

Each of the candidates in attendance sought to do better than that, by redesigning incentives, restructuring programs, and streamlining the bureaucracy that takes more than its share of the funding pie.

Governor Bush spoke of his efforts to fight poverty through education reform that improves school choice, Gov. Christie discussed his initiative as governor to increase New Jersey’s Earned Income Tax Credit, and Gov. Huckabee talked about his “Fair Tax” plan, which would move away from income taxes.

The panel-driven approach that allowed multiple candidates to discuss collaboratively rather than combatively was a breath of fresh air.

“In the debates you get six minutes in two hours,” Gov. John Kasich said. “People can’t see your personality. They can’t see what you’re made of. They can’t see your heart.”

Kasich went on to discuss the need for a holistic vision that takes into account the social determinants of poverty.

“If you are a child born into a broken family, in an unstable home, in a dangerous neighborhood, in substandard housing, in a school that’s failing in your community, where the people on the street corners are drug dealers or not good role models, you’ve got six strikes against you,” he said.

Toward that same end, Christie discussed criminal justice reform to improve treatment for nonviolent drug offenders, Sen. Marco Rubio offered a plan to broaden the uses of Pell grants to include high school vocational programs, and Dr. Ben Carson argued that communities need to be equipped and empowered to once again serve those who fall through the cracks.

“What we’ve learned today is that we’re not just an opposition party, we are also a proposition party,” a happy Ryan told MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on stage. “Wouldn’t you rather both parties compete for your vote no matter who you are, where you live, or what zip code you’re in?”

Yes. Yes. And yes.