Kausfiles Special

The New Republic Lurches Left

The New Republic is on some kind of pro-Gore stretch drive these days. Having worked there, I’ve never bought into the ambient suspicion that the magazine is in Al Gore’s pocket simply because its owner, Martin Peretz, is a close Gore friend and supporter. But shortly after Labor Day, TNR began publishing a series of strained, sloppy attacks on George W. Bush.

There was Jonathan Chait charging  that “today’s GOP remains the most radical political party since World War II” (Barry Goldwater? George McGovern?) while simultaneously arguing that “where Bush is given credit for his centrism, he is actually following his colleagues on the Hill.” There was Franklin Foer’s criticism  of the Bushes for thinking they might win black support even though they oppose the agenda of “group rights that most black Americans … think serves them best”–when the New Republic itself has for decades vigorously opposed the agenda of group rights that most black Americans think serves them best. (The ellipsis in that last quote contains a conscience-salving “for better or worse.”)

Most annoying, though, was John Judis’ argument, in the Sept. 25 issue, that George W. Bush’s policies in Texas underwent a “sharp swing to the right once he was reelected” to the governorship in 1998 and began “gearing up for the Republican presidential primary.” Judis offers two instances of this “lurch right.” The first is abortion–in 1999, it seems, Bush suddenly started pushing a tough parental notification bill. OK, that’s one example (though wasn’t parental notification once the gritty moderate middle ground between pro-choice and pro-life?).

Judis’ second big example is welfare reform, and here he paints a highly selective picture. He praises as “compassionate” Texas’ “bipartisan 1995 welfare reform law,” contrasting it with Bush’s later advocacy of a “punitive” system that included “full family sanctions”–a bit of policy lingo meaning that if a mother on welfare refuses to work, she stands to lose not only her “caretaker’s” portion of the welfare check (about $78 out of $201 a month in Texas for a mother of two), but the whole check.

In fact, the 1995 Texas law was an idiosyncratic concoction, with tough and lenient elements. It set a state time limit, which varied (from one to six years) with a recipient’s education, work experience, and the age of her child. But the time limits are less significant than they appear: Even before they are reached, a mother can be penalized if the state finds her a suitable job (not so hard to do these days) and she refuses to take it. Even after the limit is reached, a recipient might still remain on welfare. (In theory she is automatically penalized when she hits the limit, even if there are no jobs available, but there are “hardship” exemptions available.) Basically, it seems to be a system in which you are expected to work and you get penalized if you don’t work at a job the state authorities think you should take–but the penalty, or “sanction,” is relatively weak, namely loss of only part (that $78 portion) of the welfare check.

Judis says this system “more closely resembled the relatively generous Clinton plan of 1994 than it did the harsh Republican plan that Congress passed” into law in 1996. But the “generous” Clinton plan had a “full family sanction.” Clinton would have given new welfare recipients two to three years before they had to work. But then they’d be offered a job (a public service job if necessary) and, if they refused, they would lose their whole welfare check–the same penalty Judis says is “punitive” when Bush proposes it.

In fact, more than 30 states –including liberal jurisdictions like Massachusetts and Oregon–now have “full family sanctions.” One reason is that the sanctions aren’t as harsh as they seem: Even if the “full family” penalty hits, a welfare household still qualifies for food stamps and for Medicaid, programs that are worth much more than welfare in a state like Texas with low welfare benefits. Another reason is that the partial sanction–loss of $78–has proven insufficient. Faced with a work requirement, many welfare recipients decide to simply say “no” and take the partial cut in welfare income (they keep their food stamps and Medicaid, remember). The result is that reform fails in its essential goal of getting these mothers into the mainstream world of work.

Judis doesn’t mention that Bush’s 1999 proposals also included a new “earned income disregard,” which allows many welfare recipients to stay on welfare, even though they are working, for the first four months on a job. The “earned income disregard” has been pushed by both liberals and conservatives over the years, but currently it is a favorite of liberals. Whatever it is, it isn’t “punitive,” and it is more likely to enrage policy analysts at the Heritage Foundation than to appease them.

I know Judis and know he didn’t bash Bush because he somehow takes his orders from Cambridge, where Peretz lives. But I do suspect that if his piece had been at odds with the apparent anti-Bush thrust at TNR it might have come under stiffer editorial scrutiny. The magazine, after all, has historically supported welfare reform, including the “harsh Republican plan” of 1996.

This never would have happened at the Old New Republic! …. OK, of course it would have. But it’s still dispiriting.