Most Congressional Republicans would love nothing more than to eviscerate programs like Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps. But so as not to appear cruel and uncaring, they need a high-minded excuse to do so.
Quite the noble approach in acting for the common good, isn't it? Unfortunately, that guiding motivation is what seems to be driving most of the political (actually, non-existent) Republican agenda. Oh, wait! I forgot: there are the six zillion votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. My bad.
Jay Bookman summed this up nicely:
When your party's fundamental political policy is that government cannot and should not help, you can't cobble together a credible 'policy agenda' on how government can help. You just wave your hands, mumble phrases and hope nobody notices.
Several years ago, Peter Wehner, an official in several Republican administrations, lamented a Pew Survey, which disclosed that only 40 percent of Republicans (versus 62 percent in 1987) agreed with the statement: "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves."
Wehner seemed incredulous at this revelation. [The excellent Martin Longman offered an interesting take on Mr. Wehner here.] And to be fair, I thought Wehner and Michael Gerson wrote a well-reasoned commentary about the conservative failure to properly honor and abide by longstanding governing principles--even though I did not necessarily agree with most of their assessments. [I wrote 3 separate pieces on that essay at my Looking Left and Right blog: 1. 2. 3., along with a related piece here at OpEd News.]
Taken literally, this question means a solid majority of Republicans (60 percent) -- as well as 41 percent of independents -- don't believe government should care for people who are suffering from dementia, Down syndrome, crippling disease, or debilitating war wounds. It would mean government has no role to play in unemployment insurance or medical coverage to low-income children. Government has no affirmative duty to care for those who are defenseless, vulnerable, handicapped, and have hit hard times through no fault of their own.
Excuse me, but welcome to the 21st-century Republican Party! Anyone paying any attention to ideological principles that guide each of the two major parties wouldn't break a sweat recognizing which one is an advocate for the "They are on their own" philosophy of governing. (Read almost any account of the increasingly reprehensible nonsense out of the mouth of the Republican's go-to budget guy, Rep. Paul Ryan, if you have any doubts.)
Of course, being a genuine conservative in this day and age, Wehner was quick to blame "progressive overreach" from a government combining "unprecedented intrusiveness with incompetence," which has, in his mind, the obvious conclusion that such actions can only result in "a deep distrust of our public institutions, including government itself."
If one is willing to set aside six-plus years of saying "No" to almost every initiative while rarely offering anything in response other than more "No's," then those conclusions make perfect sense. Toss in a refusal to compromise while exhibiting a worry-free regard for the consequences of shutting down the government, while making the unemployed suffer just a bit more to help them build character and sound work ethics, and there's no doubt we have an incompetent government.
For a party that reveres honor and duty and responsibility, the Republican Party does a masterful job of picking and choosing when, and against or for whom, those principles apply. There are advantages to being largely integrity-free when it comes to addressing the needs of the several hundred million of us not among the wealthiest few.
In a conclusion that is nothing if not ironic, Mr. Wehner offered this:
The end of government, we're told in Federalist #51, is justice. Justice is defined as the quality of being impartial and fair and bestowing equal treatment. But it also means caring for the defenseless, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. This is a public as well as a private concern. A society ought to be judged on whether the weak and disadvantaged are cared for or exploited. And a just society is incompatible with one where government doesn't care for people who can't care for themselves.
Conservatives should be in the business of restoring confidence in the legitimacy of government by reminding people of its prescribed, limited and proper role in human society. And among those responsibilities is to care for those who can't care for themselves. That understanding of the proper and humane use of the state has largely been lost; and it is the duty of responsible political leaders to reclaim it.
Where might we find any of Mr. Wehner's governing peers capable of fulfilling that mandate in today's Washington, D.C.? Perhaps while we're engaged in that long wait, we should learn to take greater comfort in knowing that needs of the wealthiest few are being protected--fiercely so. I'm sure there's a benefit or two for the rest of us in there, somewhere.