Legislators can afford self-delusion; governors have to take responsibility and deal with reality.
The food stamp battle is part of a larger war in Washington, instigated by hardline conservatives determined to shrink the size of government, and one casualty is the spirit of bipartisanship that has long governed food and farm issues.
For many decades, agricultural subsidies and feeding programs were combined into one bill, cementing the cooperation of urban and rural legislators. As Bob Dole, a former Republican leader in the Senate, and Tom Daschle, a former Democratic leader, wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week, “We proudly count ourselves among a series of bipartisan teams of legislators who worked ... to address hunger through provisions in the farm bill.”
But today, anything that smacks of bipartisanship is poison. That’s why Republican leaders took food stamps out of the farm bill and passed a stand-alone measure. They wanted to thwart any possibility of cross-aisle cooperation.
Cooperation is not the only casualty. So is compassion. The Reagan era was marked by a rhetorical war against the poor, a cascade of criticism about “welfare queens” buying beer and steaks on food stamps. The current debate echoes with the same mean-spirited, wrong-headed stereotypes: The poor are shiftless moochers and Democrats want to raise taxes on hard-working Americans to buy the votes of those deadbeats.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas told the House that slicing food stamps sent a harsh message: “You can no longer sit on your couch ... and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you.”
Republicans used that line of attack very effectively for many years, winning five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. But it hasn’t worked so well lately. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six elections, and even some conservatives think the assault on food stamps will backfire.