Big Tent

Poverty Forum Pulls Republican Rivals Into 'Most Compassionate' Contest

Candidates seek ways to broaden the GOP's appeal to the less affluent.

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2016.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and several Republican presidential hopefuls appeared at an anti-poverty forum in South Carolina on Saturday, hoping to counter the notion that only Democrats care about non-whites, single mothers, the unemployed, and the working poor.

In a break from the increasingly bitter sniping between presidential rivals, the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity was a chance for the Republicans to display compassion and ideas at a time they risk becoming, in the words of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, "a minority party" with narrow appeal. 

“We can launch a conversation in this country about truly fixing this problem,” Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said at the event in Columbia, which he moderated with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, an African American.  

“Poverty isn’t just about deprivation, it’s about isolation,” Ryan said. “We have to reintegrate the poor. What we’re doing here today is starting that conversation.”  

South Carolina holds the nation’s third nominating contest, on Feb. 20, after Iowa and New Hampshire. The Republicans leading the polls, billionaire reality-show host Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, skipped Saturday's event to campaign in Iowa.  

Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spoke during the first panel, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee  also appeared.  

Between predictable talking points—blaming government handouts and teachers’ unions for holding back the poor, promoting marriage, and calling for shifting more funding and decision-making to the states—came calls for compassion and criminal justice reform that sometimes echoed the rhetoric of one of Republicans' chief targets, President Barack Obama.

Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, center, Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, right, participate in an economic forum as House Speaker Paul Ryan, left, and Senator Tim Scott, moderate the event.
Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, center, Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, right, participate in an economic forum as House Speaker Paul Ryan, left, and Senator Tim Scott, moderate the event.
Photographer: Sean Rayford/AP

“People are stuck, they’re stuck in poverty,” Bush said. “And the notion of some that somehow they want to be there is just totally ridiculous. It is totally wrong. In fact, we’ll never win elections if we send any kind of signal like that. We’ll just be, we’ll become a minority party.”  

Christie called for increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, saying that some welfare recipients now face an “ugly truth” that “if they did get off their couch and go to work, they’d make less.” The “war on drugs” of the past several decades hasn’t worked and first-time, non-violent offenders should be sentenced to treatment, not incarceration, Christie added. 

He also said Republican candidates need to “show up and campaign in places where we’re uncomfortable” and that “we need to be going into African-American churches. We need to be going into the Hispanic communities and the barrios. What they want is to be listened to.”  

After sparring for days in New Hampshire, Bush and Christie put their differences aside, offering encouragement for one another’s positions, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the day a "welcome break from the primary chatter."

The tensions of the campaign trail did spill into the forum, though, during a panel that included Kasich and Rubio, as pro-immigration protesters repeatedly interrupted the Florida senator, who has backed away from his previous support for comprehensive immigration reform.

“We’re going to enforce our immigration laws, guys,” Rubio said during one disruption, which won a round of applause from the crowd.

Kasich initially welcomed the protests as part of an American tradition of free speech. He later called for ending presidential debates in their current form - the next Republican candidates' faceoff is scheduled for Jan. 14 - and replacing them with issue forums. Voters "can't see your personality, can't see your heart" at debates, he said.

Carson, meanwhile, said he hopes his rivals to adopt the forum’s "tone of camaraderie."

Recounting his childhood in Detroit's inner city, Carson spoke about the merits of self-sufficiency, promoting home schooling over public schools and a flat tax over further engineering of tax credits. He said successful individuals should do more to mentor and guide the poor. “It’s our duty. We are our brother’s keepers,” he said, a line Obama also often uses. 

“As a kid growing up in poverty, I hated poverty," Carson said. "I was absolutely certain that I was born into the wrong family.” He also told a joke in which a plumber gives a neurosurgeon a bill for $2,700 and the neurosurgeon says he doesn’t bill that much for a procedure, and the plumber says, “I didn’t get that when I was a neurosurgeon, either.”  

Carson said his point was that “there’s a wide variety of different types of skills that are necessary to make a society like ours flourish.”  

Huckabee said in his own experience with childhood poverty in Arkansas, “If you grew up poor, I guarantee you didn’t want to grow up that way.” He also said government should focus more on treating addiction than incarcerating addicts.

Ryan said criminal justice reform  is one area where bipartisan cooperation seems possible, and where religious conservatives can play a significant role. “We’ve got a chance at making a big difference so that we can honor redemption," said Ryan. 

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