When he began running for president in 1999, George W. Bush presented himself as "a different kind of Republican," to quote the phrase that seemed to come up in every profile written about him at the time. He was deeply conservative, yes, but he was also happy to interact with non-white people. He advocated something called "compassionate conservatism," which, though it meant little in practice, did communicate a gentle and caring heart. He even criticized Republicans in Congress when they sought to delay the Earned Income Tax Credit that goes to working people with low incomes, saying, "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor." Everyone swooned.
How long ago that seems.
These days, there are no "different kind of Republicans." There are disagreements, to be sure. But when it comes to compassion, the only question the GOP argues about is precisely how little of it they want to display. With complete control of the federal government, Republicans are being as cruel as they want to be. And oh boy, do they want to be cruel.
And that's as true for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan as anyone. Let me refer you to this tweet:
Another one heads to President Trump’s desk. This legislation allows states to have drug testing to receive federal unemployment benefits. pic.twitter.com/cFnvdeQqX1
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) March 19, 2017
Just look at the smug smile on Ryan's face as he contemplates the idea of people who have lost their jobs being forced to pee in a cup before they're able to access unemployment benefits. Drug testing is something conservatives like Ryan love — not for those getting certain benefits, like, say, the mortgage interest deduction or the tax break for retirement savings. Just the benefits that people down on their luck need. Because you won't truly know how much you've failed until you've been forced to undergo some humiliation along with all your other troubles.
That, however, is small potatoes compared to what Ryan and other Republicans want to do to the health-care system. They hate the Affordable Care Act for many reasons, but one of their chief complaints is that it is far too generous to the working poor. As Ryan recently said to National Review editor Rich Lowry, "We've been dreaming of [ending Medicaid's guarantee of health insurance for the poor] since I've been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg." Ha ha!
So their bill rolls back the ACA's expansion of Medicaid, knocking millions of Americans off the coverage they now enjoy, and goes much farther. Rather than restoring the status quo ante, it moves toward a transformation of Medicaid, away from being something that anyone with a low-enough income would be eligible for and toward "block grants," lump sums each state would get and have the "flexibility" to use as they please — including tightening restrictions and kicking people off the program.
In addition, Ryan is keen to impose work requirements on Medicaid, too, despite the fact that the idea of poor people living high off the hog on their fancy health insurance and not bothering to look for work now that they can go to the doctor is preposterous.
Beneath proposals like that is a particular view of poor people, one that drips with contempt. It sees them not as those who have had hard lives or encountered some bad luck or who could use help, but people who are fundamentally lazy and trying to scam the system. What they need is a lecture on bootstrap-pulling and maybe some humiliation, and then through that suffering they might improve their moral character enough to be worthy of the government benefits those with higher incomes enjoy.
And the White House is eager to help; its proposed budget would slash nearly every program in sight that actually helps people, from Meals on Wheels to afterschool programs to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food assistance program to affordable housing to libraries.
All this is accompanied, of course, by the Republicans' eternal desire to cut taxes on the wealthy. So pay attention, because this is what Republicans do when they get the chance: They work like dogs to make the lives of those at the bottom and middle more difficult, while trying equally hard to ease the burdens so unjustly suffered by those at the top.
There's no guarantee that Ryan's ACA repeal bill will pass through Congress. But what threatens its prospects for passage? The fact that, cruel though it is, it might not be quite cruel enough for some Republicans. Members of the ultra-right Freedom Caucus are withholding their support for the legislation because they're concerned that it doesn't decimate Medicaid quickly enough, and that the meager tax credits it offers in place of the ACA's subsidies to buy insurance might be just too generous, allowing moochers to suckle at the government's teat.
Imagine the irony if their repeal effort fails, and millions of Americans are spared a terrible fate, not because Republicans experienced an outbreak of compassion but because they couldn't agree on just how much they wanted to punish poor Americans. It would be a fitting end.