Why the GOP is the true party of 'free stuff'
While other candidates are a lot crazier, Jeb Bush is clearly the most fumble-brained option in the presidential race. He can't seem to string two words together without committing a grievous political faux pas. Whether it was his call for "phasing out" Medicare, or his scorn for women's health issues, or his claim that Asians are the real anchor babies, he's got a serious case of foot-in-mouth disease.
Now he's out with a fresh clunker, this time about how Republicans, unlike Democrats, won't try to lure black voters with "free stuff." Primary voting is months away, and already Bush is flirting with language that may have lost Mitt Romney the election.
Bush's argument — that Democrats cynically use welfare to buy black votes and thereby trap them in a cycle of dependency — is seriously mistaken, as well as deeply hypocritical. But a more fundamental mistake is the picture of government Bush envisions. Put simply, handing out "free stuff" of one sort or another is perhaps the most important job governments can do.
First, let's tackle why black people vote Democratic. I think the answer can be illustrated best in two words: Strom Thurmond. He was a South Carolina Democrat when he broke the record for the longest Senate filibuster ever trying to stop the 1957 Civil Rights Act. But after a much more aggressive civil rights bill passed in 1964, he switched parties, eventually followed by most of the other Dixiecrats. As Philip Bump demonstrates, blacks unsurprisingly did the opposite at the same time, shifting very heavily towards the Democratic Party.
In other words, government benefits play, at best, an incidental role in black support for the Democrats. Republicans today are not segregationists, but they are the inheritors of a legacy of outright white supremacy. Thurmond was in the Senate until 2003. At his 100th birthday party in 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) praised Thurmond's 1948 run for president under a third party apartheid ticket. (Lott later resigned as leader after his comments were made public.) Democrats have not been the finest stewards of black fortunes, but it's pretty obvious that they're better than the alternative.
That brings me to the hypocrisy. While Democrats support social benefits in a wishy-washy way, conservatives are absolutely obsessed with directing huge monetary benefits to their favored constituencies — namely, the rich.
George W. Bush's tax cuts were violently skewed towards the wealthy — over 73 percent of the benefits went to the top income quintile, and fully 30 percent to 1 percenters alone. Jeb Bush aims to pull the same trick, proposing another corpulent set of tax breaks — only this time, over half of the benefits would accrue to the top 1 percent alone. You can't win an election solely with the support of billionaires, of course, but Bush and his allies have also already raised over $120 million. Not, one suspects, a coincidence.
Overall, welfare benefits for the top income quintile — largely a result of conservative policymaking — cost roughly $355 billion yearly. Meanwhile, what passes for new policy in Republican circles — a child tax credit — is a government benefit for middle- and upper-class parents that carefully and deliberately excludes the poor.
But it would be a mistake to stop here. Good government types often rail against the blatant cronyism of Bush family politics — i.e., you give me hundreds of millions of dollars for my presidential campaign, and I'll cut the capital gains tax so you can better loot your company — but making good policy isn't as simple as being against patronage in general. As Francis Fukuyama points out in Political Order and Political Decay, Boss Tweed-style patronage politics can also be a first step towards an efficient, decent modern state. There is no bright line between handing out jobs to one's ethnic community in return for votes, and constructing a modern bureaucracy that provides universal social benefits like clean air and water, low crime, a safety net, and so forth.
For what are governments good for, if not providing universal security and prosperity for as many citizens as possible? Even in a jalopy country like the U.S., the vast majority of state activity is dedicated towards this end, at least ostensibly. The military, to defend the nation; Social Security, to provide for the retired and disabled; Medicare, Medicaid, and ObamaCare, to provide universal access to health care; various safety net programs like food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, to keep people from destitution — these together, plus interest on the national debt, account for 84 percent of direct federal spending. Many of these could be improved, or are badly misused, but that's their bedrock ideological justification. Other nations with better versions of similar policies show that universal high-quality health care and an end to poverty are easily within our grasp.
So the problem with Bush's logrolling — and Republican policy in general — is mainly that it directs almost all the benefits to people who don't need it.