An important but often neglected debate broke out in Washington last week: Which political party can do more for the nation's poor?
The occasion was a conference at Georgetown University on how religious groups can alleviate poverty. It turned into an opportunity for a spirited exchange between a leading thinker in the Republican Party's reform camp, Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, and a noted leader in the Democratic Party, President Obama.
In little more than an hour, Obama and Brooks succeeded in identifying a few encouraging points of common ground between the two parties — among people of goodwill, at least. They also ran up against one basic difference that separates them — and that will remain an obstacle to federal efforts to help families left behind in a winner-take-all economy.
First, the good news: Obama and Brooks agreed that poverty is a problem that both parties should address, that its causes are both economic and cultural and that federal programs can do more.
“The stereotype is that you've got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don't care anything about culture or parenting,” Obama said. “And then you've got cold-hearted free-market capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.”
Brooks, breaking ranks with some conservatives, said federal “safety net” programs have been essential to protect the poor.
“It's time to declare peace on the safety net,” he said. “In fact, the social safety net is one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise.... We should be proud of that.”
And both men agreed to a tacit cease-fire in the debate over whether the principal cause of poverty is a broken economic system, or the broken culture of poor families.
“This is not an either/or conversation; it is a both/and,” Obama said. “The reason we get trapped in the either/or conversation is because all too often, [conservatives] have used the rationale that ‘character matters' … as a rationale for the disinvestment in public goods.”
But with that statement, Obama dispensed with all the kumbaya and got around to the seemingly unbridgeable gap that divides the two major parties.
To Obama, the problem is that Republicans will talk about poverty, but they won't spend money to back up their words.
Brooks and other reform conservatives say they're willing to spend more money on poverty alleviation — for example, wage subsidies to encourage employers to hire more minimum-wage workers — but they still want federal spending to shrink overall.
“If you talk to any of my Republican friends, they will say … they care about the poor — and I believe them,” Obama said. “But when it comes to actually establishing budgets, making choices, prioritizing, that's when it starts breaking down.”
Brooks answered in kind. “Let's have a rumble over how much money we're spending on public goods for poor people, for sure,” he said. “But we can't even get to that when politicians on the left and the right are conspiring to not touch middle-class entitlements.” (He meant Social Security and Medicare, mainly.)
“The right [is] saying all the money is gone on this. And the left is saying all we need is a lot more money on top of these things.” But more spending, he warned, is “leading us to fiscal unsustainability.”
At least in theory, there's still room for deal-making here. A few creative Republicans have been willing to consider cutting taxes on the working poor at the cost of modestly higher taxes on some of the affluent. A few creative Democrats have been willing to consider trimming the growth of Social Security and Medicare to free up funds for the truly needy.
We're unlikely to hear much of that kind of bipartisanship in a primary campaign that, so far, has driven candidates on both sides to reaffirm their partisan credentials.
Still, voters can use the broad outlines of this debate to frame questions for presidential hopefuls over the next 17 months.
If, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, you say you want to do something for the poor, how serious is that commitment if you also plan to shrink domestic spending? If, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, you believe an activist federal government can do more, would you merely increase spending — or would you look for savings by trimming other programs?
Indeed, voters may soon be asking some version of those questions. In New Hampshire, moderate Republicans — abetted by Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard professor whose recent book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” helped energize this debate — say they plan to show up at candidates' events demanding to know what they would do about the poor.
The two parties still start with different premises about the proper size and role of government. That's not going to change.
But if candidates on both sides are willing to put poverty unapologetically on their agendas, that will count as progress. Until recently, national politicians rarely talked about the poor.