The Republican Party’s top leader in Congress is catching flak for a comment that appears to call the jobless lazy – a comment that has rekindled an old challenge for the party: appearing insensitive or uncaring toward Americans who are poor or in financial difficulty.
House Speaker John Boehner was asked after a speech last week to comment on a plan for addressing poverty – promoted by a Republican colleague, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Speaker Boehner gave a response that was favorable toward Representative Ryan's plan, but not so favorable about Americans’ work ethic. He said in part: “I think this idea that’s been born over last ... couple of years that, ‘You know, I really don’t have to work, I don’t really want to do this, I think I’d just rather sit around,’ – this is a very sick idea for our country.”
This doesn’t sound like a Republican Party that has learned how to shake its image of being oriented toward the rich.
Fair or not, that image keeps reviving. Back in 2012 the issue flared up, for example, when video footage emerged of presidential candidate Mitt Romney saying 47 percent of Americans are “dependent upon government” and won’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
In the same way that some Republicans have been trying to help their party connect more broadly with women and racial or ethnic minorities, Ryan has been trying to flip the party’s image as callous toward the poor.
Last month, in a Wall Street Journal commentary, Ryan overtly sought to distance himself from the phrase “takers” (as opposed to working, tax-paying “makers”), when referring to people who get government assistance.
Boehner and Ryan appear to agree that the answer to America’s economic problems lies largely in promoting faster job creation and providing pairing government assistance more closely with incentives to work.
In fact, Boehner’s full answer included some words fully sympathetic to the plight that many Americans face. “It’s our obligation to help provide the tools for them to use to help bring them into the mainstream” of the economy, he said.
He also lamented that “we’ve got a record number of Americans not working,” and said Ryan “is doing some very good work” in thinking about ways to lift more Americans out of poverty.
Responding to two points of the Ryan plan mentioned specifically by a questioner, Boehner said the idea of an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit has “a lot of merit” and that prison sentencing trends suggest that it’s time for “honest conversation.”
Where Boehner diverged in his message was on Americans’ motives and work ethic. Where Ryan had talked about people “trying to make something of themselves,” Boehner opined about a rising number who would “rather sit around.”
Maybe the US has some of those. The phrase “couch potato” caught on here in America, after all. But many economists say the fundamental challenge remains how to generate stronger growth in jobs and wages (the issue Boehner had focused on in his prepared remarks), not a declining willingness among Americans to work.
The US currently has some 9.6 million people officially unemployed and seeking jobs. Nearly 3 million of those have been out of work for at least half a year.
Boehner’s remark, on its face, doesn’t seem as politically damaging as Romney’s. Romney was a presidential candidate and his gaffe stirred controversy partly because it was captured on videotape from a fundraising luncheon.
But where Ryan took a step forward for Republican optics with working-class voters, Boehner may have taken a step back.