WASHINGTON –- Remember that time Republicans cared about poverty?
Nearly a year ago, the wounds of the 2012 election were still fresh, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that Mitt Romney had received woeful support from minorities. There was talk about how the GOP needed to do a better job of engaging with those voters and their concerns.
That lasted a few months. "And they turned from it," said Bob Woodson, a veteran of the anti-poverty movement, an African-American, and a conservative. Woodson became an adviser to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) when Ryan was picked as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's running mate. And Ryan remains one of the few conservatives who even kept urban issues, and the poor in general, on his agenda into the summer of 2013.
Even so, Ryan has kept his head down of late, likely trying to avoid the conservative sturm und drang aroused by Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) insistence that Obamacare can be defunded, despite the fact that Democrats control the White House and the Senate. Ryan plans to continue focusing on poverty once the current fiscal crisis is resolved, according to Ryan's staff. He will continue meeting with community leaders in urban areas away from TV cameras, something he has been doing monthly, with Woodson as his guide. And Ryan will continue holding hearings on poverty in the House Budget Committee next year. But for now, any talk of helping the disadvantaged has been pushed to the back burner. And the Republican party is presenting the same face to the public that has resulted in their losing the last two presidential elections.
"Low-income people will be injured as a consequence of what Republicans are doing to themselves," Woodson told HuffPost, seated in his K Street Office. "Low-income people need very much some competitive force, some political competitive force that offers them an alternative to the liberal policies that created Detroit."
Several months of debate over an immigration bill that many on the right saw as pandering to Hispanic voters with some form of amnesty brought conservative anger to a slow boil, and combined with the absence of any discernible strategy among Republican leadership for dealing with the upcoming fiscal fights, it has hardened GOP rhetoric and opened an opportunity for hard-liners such as Cruz to step into the vacuum.
But it is something deeper that is currently driving many conservatives away from a compassionate, positive and proactive agenda and toward a defensive and besieged stance, and producing the kind of all-or-nothing attitude carried by Cruz and his allies. The schedule for this week's Value Voters Summit in Washington is a window into the conservative state of mind.
There are panels on the loss of civil liberties, on social issues like gay marriage, on gun rights, one about "assaults on our faith," and another on "challenging tyranny." The only mention of minorities is a panel about "messaging and mobilizing" Hispanic voters.
And there is a panel about "the war on football." Cue the jokes about conservatives coming out in favor of concussions.
Woodson laughed when this reporter mentioned the panel on "saving" football. But he was not amused by the overall content of the conference, one of a few held each year in Washington that attract conservative activists from around the country.
"When I look at the Value Voters summit, when I look at [Conservative Action Political Conference], and I look at what are they talking about, they're the same damn people, saying the same thing. What does that tell you? There's not even discussions about departing from the losing ways," Woodson said.
The Republican National Committee on Monday announced it had hired "Hispanic engagement staff" in seven states, and said it plans to announce similar investments in 11 other states. But Woodson was not impressed with the RNC's approach.
"When I look at what the Republican National Committee defines as its direction, they talk about outreach. [RNC Chairman Reince] Priebus talks about hiring more minorities to do quote on quote 'outreach,' going out, meeting with people, telling them that we care because we're hiring people who look like you ... that's the worst thing to do," Woodson said. "The problem that the party faces isn't taking their message that they care to people. The problem is defining what does it mean to care for people."
Woodson said he believes Ryan must lead the GOP out of its current moment.
"Sometimes people have to be saved from themselves, and I think Paul understands that. Paul is the hope of the conservative movement," Woodson said.
Woodson scoffed at the idea that Cruz represented the conservative grassroots in any significant way.
"Is leadership merely a reflection of what appears to be a growing consensus? Is that how you define leadership? I was at a meeting and most of the people voted to go that way, and so I'm going that way. That's not leadership," Woodson said. "Leadership to me is when you have enough guts to defy popular consensus and offer an alternative and explain it in such a way, what it means to go that way. Leadership means when you do the unpopular thing at an inconvenient time, and you're willing to pay the price for that position."
He said that Republicans, instead of being "more geared toward fighting," should focus on honing a "community building conservatism." For Woodson, this means leaders like Ryan, and Cruz for that matter, "have to go out and not preach this stuff but take steps to encourage some of the people who are investing the billion dollars in attack ads to instead take a portion of that money and invest it in some institution that helps low income people to help themselves."
Does that mean that Ryan should make poverty and community-building his signature issue, which would be quite a shift after having carved out an identity as a budget and health care wonk?
"He has to. If not Paul, somebody on the Republican side has to," Woodson said.
In response to the observation that Cruz would no doubt argue he is fighting for the poor as well, because he believes Obamacare will result in health care outcomes that are worse for low-income Americans than what they have now, Woodson used an interesting analogy.
"Of course he will say that. Yes he will say that. And I may agree with him," Woodson said. "But the question is, why not let them make the decision on their own? Trust them that they can judge for themselves whether it's going to work for them. It's like you telling somebody that the woman they love is bad for them.
"Your brother is going around with some woman that is horrible. You can tell him, and then he has to experience for himself. What happens when he goes out and experiences: she disappoints him, she hurts him, she tears him up. You don't have to tell him anymore. But at a certain point you gotta let him experience that for himself."
So Ted Cruz is sort of like an over controlling parent? "Exactly," Woodson said. "Because he will say, 'I'm not with her because of what you did. I was forbidden by you.' So you are the issue, instead of loving him enough to let him find out himself."