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Romney's Legacy: A Modest Proposal
One Thing Government Can Actually Do
I first interviewed Mitt Romney twenty years ago, when he was governor of Massachusetts. It was a joyous wonkathon. He had proposed a universal health care program for his state, with an individual mandate—that is, everyone had to join up. He was impressive talking about it, utterly fluent, well-informed, at times funny. I figured this guy had the chops to be President some day. Romneycare passed and Barack Obama proposed and enacted a very similar plan (Obamacare)—which led to Romney’s worst moment as a politician: When he ran against Obama in 2012, Romney pretended to be against the national version of his plan. In fact, the 2012 campaign was a dismal effort on almost all counts for Romney. He slouched to the right, made his famous comments about 47% of the American people being on the dole (privately, to a group of GOP donors). It was sad to watch. He was better than that, as he has proved in the public arena ever since.
And now he is leaving the Senate, another significant diminution of the Sanity Caucus. His departure, and the other assorted Republican Congressional follies, overwhelmed a small but significant bit of news this week: child poverty has doubled in the past year. As Catherine Rampell reported:
Last year, one of the most successful anti-poverty programs ever enacted, the child allowance, ended. Enacted in early 2021 through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, it expanded on the existing child tax credit program to distribute a monthly check to nearly every family with children. Families received up to $300 per child each month, depending on the child’s age and household income, no strings attached.
Romney supported the child tax credit—one of the very few Republicans who did, which was an irony: it was, technically, a Republican idea first proposed by Richard Nixon, working from a design concocted by his Domestic Policy Advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It was an elegant, realistic, pessimistic idea.
Moynihan once said: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” In my experience—and Moynihan taught me a lot—Pat was a bit more skeptical about the liberal part of the equation. Changing a culture, even at the margins, wasn’t easy. He was famously concerned about the breakdown of the black family. He believed that the then-current welfare system (Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC) created incentives that made it easier for men to leave their families without consequence. Indeed, women could only receive welfare payments if there was no (healthy, work-able) man in the house. Moynihan believed that if you created a guaranteed annual income based on the number of dependent children in a household—that is, a child tax credit, payable to those with insufficient income—you might blunt the incentives for men to leave. But he was also a realist: a culture of inter-generational poverty existed in the black underclass—the roots went back to the stunning brutality of enslavement—and it would be very difficult for government to change that. He certainly didn’t want government to act punitively—to punish children, that is, by cutting their mothers off the dole (which is why he later opposed Bill Clinton’s welfare reform plan). He figured that if you gave poor moms money, without strings, they would choose to feed their kids, no matter how debilitated, drug-addled or ignorant they were. It was not an ambitious program, just a humane one.
Moynihan proved prescient about a lot of things, as I wrote a few years ago in the New York Times Book Review. He was certainly right about the importance of intact families, as Nick Kristof acknowledged today And he was certainly right about the importance of culture, as Glen Loury recently observed, writing about black crime:
Economics alone can’t explain the brazen lawlessness of these young people…John [McWhorter] is quite clear that he thinks a lack of jobs isn’t the main problem. It’s the C-word: culture. As he sees it—and I don’t think he’s wrong—absent fathers have a lot to do with the kind of culture where looting and random assault are regarded as sport. Without older men around to model responsible behavior—and with some of them modeling outright irresponsible behavior—ordinary frustration in younger men finds an extraordinary outlet…When there are high concentrations of unstable families in a given area, a lack of order inside the home can reproduce itself on the streets and contribute to broader and more consequential social chaos. Of course, we do need to attend to broader economic factors if we’re going to stanch this kind of violent disorder. But I'm convinced that doing so without looking inward to the home won’t get us very far.
And, as Joe Biden proved—with Mitt Romney’s support—Moynihan was also right that a child tax credit would reduce poverty. Indeed, as Rampell notes above: it decimated child poverty. And we have allowed it to lapse.
Actually, the death of the child tax credit was a direct obeisance to Joe Manchin, who opposed it in return for his vote for Biden’s Build Back Better legislation…while, simultaneously, subsidizing his beloved coal industry. No Labels? More like No Scruples.
I am pretty skeptical about a lot of liberal anti-poverty programs. They just don’t work, in large part because of the cultural obstacles Moynihan described: It is pointless for a job training program to teach a skill, if the trainee doesn’t understand the absolutely crucial importance of showing up for work on time every day. Universal pre-school won’t work if parents aren’t actively engaged in their kids’ education. Vouchers—food stamps, housing and day-care allowances, etc.—tend to work better than government-run programs. The child tax credit is a voucher of sorts. It is imperfect, and sad. It can be exploited. It doesn’t speak well of either the liberal project—that is, the possibility of self-improvement—or the inherent cruelty of conservative social Darwinism. But it is a proven success, a program that humane politicians, including conservatives skeptical about the government’s ability to change ingrained behavior, can support. It is not only the least we can do, it may be the most.
Joe Biden should try again to pass a permanent child tax credit. He should partner with Mitt Romney to do it. The affection and respect that many Republicans have for Romney might be enough to get it done.
Tim Scott’s Ghost Girlfriend
I’ve got to say, this is one of the weirdest political stories I’ve ever read. The writer, Ben Terris, seems entirely embarrassed about pursuing the mysteries of Senator Tim Scott’s private life, which exist only because Scott is unmarried. Scott might have plausibly said, “My private life is none of your business,” but he agrees to talk, and claims he has a girlfriend, though he won’t mention her name—and his best friend from childhood seems to think Scott doesn't have one. Now, let me say this: I don’t care. I don’t believe you should, either. But if you want to be President of the United States, you should be more adept at handling questions like these than Scott is here.
A Class Act
I learned a lot from Mike Gerson, the lovely Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush administration official who passed away earlier this year—and so did George W. Bush, who followed Gerson’s advice and passed PEPFAR, the spectacularly successful program to distribute HIV/Aids drugs in Africa. (Another government program, by the way, that did not aspire to changing a culture, just saving lives.) The former President wrote an op-ed about the program in the Post this week, using Mike’s words: “In advocating for PEPFAR’s creation in 2002,” Bush wrote, “Gerson told me, ‘If we can do this and we don’t, it will be a source of national shame.’” Sort of like allowing kids to go hungry when we can do something about that, too.
A reader recently purchased a paid subscription to Sanity Clause because he thought I was unpredictable on the issues: “It shows you’re thinking,” he wrote. I try, I try…and I’m open to rethinking, revising, retreating and standing my ground, stubbornly, when necessary. With your help.