Poor Connections

In interviews and campaign press releases, Republican leaders like to brag about their humble beginnings and how much they care about people who are suffering financially. This has been a common GOP strategy at least as far back as the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who used it as cover when he slashed taxes on the wealthy and raised taxes on everyone else. He set the standard used by the GOP even today; tell the country that you are cutting taxes and hope that everyone will ignore the fact that the benefits go almost exclusively to the most wealthy. Meanwhile, the loss of government revenues means that most programs that benefit the rest of us, and that many of us desperately need, will have to be slashed. The Robin Hood program, only in reverse.

The misdirection in their approach came to the surface dramatically again recently with the passage of the 2017 tax “reform” bill. In the lead-up to that vote, a heated exchange occurred in the Senate Finance committee between Senators Sherrod Brown and Orrin Hatch. The Washington Post provided this description:

      Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) engaged in extended sparring with committee
      chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) over who would benefit from the Senate bill,
      with Brown insisting that it fundamentally represents a tax cut for the rich and
      not the middle class. This drew an enraged response from Hatch, even though
      Brown’s argument was 100 percent correct.

      All this made Hatch angry. “I come from the poor people,” Hatch said. “And I’ve
      been here working my whole stinkin’ career for people who don’t have a chance.
      And I really resent anybody saying that I’m just doing this for the rich.
      Give me a break. I think you guys overplay that all the time, and it gets old.
      And frankly, you ought to quit it.” When Brown pushed back by suggesting
      that previous tax cuts for the rich haven’t produced the results Republicans
      are once again predicting, Hatch silenced him.

Yes, Orrin Hatch began his “whole stinkin’ career” with a childhood in poverty, born and raised in a house without indoor plumbing. He had eight brothers and sisters, two of whom died as infants and one who died in World War II as a B-24 nose gunner. He attended public schools all the way up through the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. So he does have authentic family poverty bona fides, just like the current leaders of the Republican-led congress.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell suffered from polio as a child, beginning when he was two years old. He recovered with the help of the Warm Springs Resort in Georgia, a complex that had been bought and rehabilitated by Franklin Roosevelt and taken over and supported by the State of Georgia for the benefit of polio victims. Because of his illness his family, in his words, “almost went broke”. After he recovered he attended public schools throughout his education, up to his graduation from the University of Kentucky college of Law.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan attended Catholic schools through high school, in part supporting himself by working at the grill in a McDonalds. When he was 16 his father died and his grandmother moved in with the family. She had Alzheimers and he helped his mother take care of her needs. For two years following his father’s death he received Social Security survivor’s benefits, which he saved to help him get through college. He attended Miami of Ohio, a public university.

Here’s the question: How is it that these men can remember their humble beginnings and, despite that, work tirelessly to undermine the government supports that made it possible for them to succeed? We can only infer that the only thing they gained from their experience with poverty is a desperate drive to avoid poverty (1) by never thinking seriously about it, and (2) by kowtowing to the rich.

Look at the evidence. The 2017 tax bill, which was supported by all three of these men, made drastic permanent reductions in the taxes paid by wealthy people and corporations. It also provided small reductions for most everyone else, but those “tax cuts for us” expire in 2025. The result adds more than a hundred billion to the annual national deficit, the debt that will have to be paid back by our children. The three GOP leaders recognize the debt-mountain they are creating, so in order to reduce it a bit they are already talking about massive reductions in social programs, including Medicaid and Medicare and welfare and food stamps and federal education supports.

Yes, the very same Paul Ryan who depended on Social Security survivor benefits to put him through college now wants to make drastic cuts in Social Security and other programs, for everyone. This in spite of the fact that the social safety net has already been diminished through repeated austerity budgets in the past three decades. And these three GOP leaders, all of whom benefited from public education, now want to continue the recent trend of making public universities more expensive and reducing support for public elementary and secondary schools. In these and many other ways, these men who were provided with government help in climbing the social ladder are now doing everything they can to remove many of the rungs on the very ladders they used.

For decades the GOP justified cuts in social programs by complaining about the size of the federal deficit. Their argument, however, has been proven specious by their unanimous votes to pass the 2017 tax package, a record giveaway that significantly reversed the progress that the Obama administration had made in reducing the deficit. This was a supersized repeat of the Bush tax cuts that turned the 1999 Clinton budget surpluses into large 2002 deficits. Some Republicans have explained, with uncharacteristic candor, that they had to pass that bill because the tax cuts were demanded by their campaign donors. In other words, they don’t really want to reduce the deficit. They want to enrich their already-wealthy friends, at any cost. So much for caring about the needy. So much for the lessons they might have learned from their humble backgrounds. In the continuing battles of class warfare, these three men and their Republican colleagues have clearly sided with the plutocrats rather than with their origins. I’m certain that Orrin Hatch recognized this fact, and that is why he protested so vehemently when it was pointed out in public. The truth can hurt, especially if you’re in politics.

The current donor system of campaign financing is a serious impediment to any efforts to provide assistance to people who suffer from poverty and unemployment and inadequate health care. People with money to donate get the legislation they want. Other people don’t. But there’s another reason why so many Republicans, even those who should know better, continue to vote against programs that provide the social safety net. That reason is the ubiquitous conservative philosophy that emphasizes individualism and self-reliance. Many prosperous people believe that their success is the result of their own personal effort and characteristics. They want to believe they are self-made. Their personal narrative doesn’t want to attribute their good fortune to luck or family resources or general economic stability or white privilege or even supportive infrastructure factors such as good roads and clean water and effective schools. As a result, they see no reason to support such things with tax money, and they make huge donations to the GOP and get, in return, even larger tax breaks.

The system must be changed. One way to do that is to ignore what politicians tell us about their humble beginnings. Instead, ask them, repeatedly, what they have done for the poor and middle class lately.

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