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John Kasich,
the Republican governor of Ohio, has
done some surprising things lately
. First, he did an end
run around his state’s Legislature — controlled by his own party —
to proceed with the federally funded expansion of Medicaid that is
an important piece of Obamacare. Then, defending his action, he let
loose on his political allies, declaring, “I’m concerned about the
fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That, if you’re poor,
somehow you’re shiftless and
lazy.” 

Obviously Mr. Kasich isn’t the first to
make this observation. But the fact that it’s coming from a
Republican in good standing (although maybe not anymore), indeed
someone who used to be known as a conservative firebrand, is
telling. Republican hostility toward the poor and unfortunate has
now reached such a fever pitch that the party doesn’t really stand
for anything else — and only willfully blind observers can fail to
see that reality. 

The big
question is why. But, first, let’s talk a bit more about what’s
eating the right. 

I still
sometimes see pundits claiming that the Tea Party movement is
basically driven by concerns about budget deficits. That’s
delusional. Read the
founding rant by Rick Santelli
of CNBC: There’s nary a
mention of deficits. Instead, it’s a tirade against the possibility
that the government might help “losers” avoid foreclosure. Or read
transcripts from Rush Limbaugh or other right-wing talk radio
hosts. There’s not much about fiscal responsibility, but there’s a
lot about how the government is rewarding the lazy and
undeserving. 

Republicans in leadership positions try
to modulate their language a bit, but it’s a matter more of tone
than substance. They’re still clearly passionate about making sure
that the poor and unlucky get as little help as possible, that — as
Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget
Committee, put it — the
safety net is becoming
“a hammock that lulls able-bodied
people to lives of dependency and complacency.” And Mr. Ryan’s
budget proposals involve savage cuts in safety-net programs such as
food stamps and Medicaid. 

All of this
hostility to the poor has culminated in the truly astonishing
refusal of many states to participate in the Medicaid expansion.
Bear in mind that the federal government would pay for this
expansion, and that the money thus spent would benefit hospitals
and the local economy as well as the direct recipients. But a
majority of Republican-controlled state governments are, it turns
out, willing to pay a large economic and fiscal price in order to
ensure that aid doesn’t reach the poor.
 

The thing is, it wasn’t always this
way. Go back for a moment to 1936, when Alf Landon received the
Republican nomination for president. In many ways, Landon’s
acceptance speech
previewed themes taken up by modern
conservatives. He lamented the incompleteness of economic recovery
and the persistence of high unemployment, and he attributed the
economy’s lingering weakness to excessive government intervention
and the uncertainty he claimed it
created. 

But he also said this: “Out of this
Depression has come, not only the problem of recovery but also the
equally grave problem of caring for the unemployed until recovery
is attained. Their relief at all times is a matter of plain duty.
We of our Party pledge that this obligation will never be
neglected.” 

Can you imagine a modern Republican
nominee saying such a thing? Not in a party committed to the view
that unemployed workers have it too easy, that they’re so coddled
by unemployment insurance and food stamps that they have no
incentive to go out there and get a
job. 

So what’s this all about? One reason,
the sociologist Daniel Little suggested in
a recent essay
, is market ideology: If the market is
always right, then people who end up poor must deserve to be poor.
I’d add that some leading Republicans are, in their minds, acting
out adolescent libertarian fantasies. “It’s as if we’re living in
an Ayn Rand novel right now,” declared
Paul Ryan in 2009

But there’s
also, as Mr. Little says, the stain that won’t go away: race.
 

In a
much-cited recent memo
, Democracy Corps, a
Democratic-leaning public opinion research organization, reported
on the results of focus groups held with members of various
Republican factions. They found the Republican base “very conscious
of being white in a country that is increasingly minority” — and
seeing the social safety net both as something that helps Those
People, not people like themselves, and binds the rising nonwhite
population to the Democratic Party. And, yes, the
Medicaid expansion many states are rejecting
would
disproportionately have helped poor
blacks. 

So there is indeed a war on the poor,
coinciding with and deepening the pain from a troubled economy. And
that war is now the central, defining issue of American
politics. 


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