Rep. Allen West: Democratic handouts an 'insidious form of slavery'

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In a speech on the House floor today, Florida Rep. Allen West marked Black History Month by proving, once and for all, that he knows nothing about history.

West’s speech included the following show-stopper:

“Our party firmly believes in the safety net,” West said in a late Wednesday floor speech. “We reject the idea of the safety net becoming a hammock.

“For this reason, the Republican value of minimizing government dependence is particularly beneficial to the poorest among us,” he continued. “Conversely, the Democratic appetite for ever-increasing redistributionary handouts is in fact the most insidious form of slavery remaining in the world today, and it does not promote economic freedom.”

As it happens, West got the history wrong from the word “our,” presuming that the party he was referring to is the Republican Party.

The fact is, the modern Republican party has been firmly opposed to the social safety net for nearly 100 years. In less than two generations, the GOP morphed from the liberal party of Abraham Lincoln, whose second inaugural address inspired the establishment of pensions for Union veterans of the Civil War, their widows and orphans (the extension of which was actually vetoed by Democratic president Grover Cleveland in 1888) — into the business-friendly 20th century party that fought ideas like farm subsidies and food and cash assistance to struggling Americans during the Great Depression, as both Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge did, believing it to be a moral hazard that creates a society of dependents.

When FDR proposed his New Deal programs to respond to mass joblessness with government programs, Republicans vehemently opposed them. Republicans opposed the Social Security Act of 1935 and the 1965 version signed by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, which created Medicare and Medicaid. A pre-presidential Ronald Reagan railed against it as the creeping tide of socialism in 1961.

When Republicans in the House realized they couldn’t stop the 1965 Social Security Act, due to Democrats’ overwhelming majorities in congress, the tried proposing their own plan: voluntary Medicare that boiled down to government subsidies for doctors and drug companies.

Republicans have made moves toward co-opting parts of the social safety net. Reagan signed a bill in 1983 that secured the Social Security trust fund by raising taxes, and Republicans used strong arm tactics in the House floor, including bribery, to pass George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D, which is essentially a revival of the 1965 GOP attempt to create a government dole for drug makers.

And Republican Senator Bob Dole supported the shift from purchased to free food stamps. (Inadvertently, then speaker Newt Gingrich helped boost the food stamp rolls. during the 1990s by getting rid of the New Deal era Aid to Families with Dependent Children).

Also inconvenient for West’s assertion that Republican policies are better for “the poorest among us,” is the fact that the economic data show that Americans of all income groups — but especially the poor and the very poor, have seen their incomes grow more under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones. That includes every American president from FDR through George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the current House have repeatedly targeted programs like Medicare, Medicaid, education, Head Start and food aid to poor families for cuts. How cutting off people’s access to medical care and food “increases their economic freedom” you’d have to ask Congressman West.

The plain truth is that when it comes to the Republican Party’s rhetoric, it has been consistent since the Hoover days in being dead set against providing a safety net for the old, or the poor. West’s referring to the basic assistance the American people provide to the most vulnerable among us as “redistributionist handouts” (he also favors further, deep tax cuts for the rich,) is par for that course. The GOP of today is the opposite of the party of Lincoln, or of Dwight Eisenhower (or even Bob Dole, who in his day was actually considered a conservative).

President Johnson’s signing of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 cemented the Republicans’ shift to the South. The party absorbed the former Dixiecrats — who historically, opposed Civil War pensions because ex-Confederate soldiers weren’t eligible for them, but black Union veterans, though greatly discriminated against in the application process, were — to form the most current iteration of the party that includes Allen West.

West, like his party, has been relentless in reiterating age-old arguments that have been used against the social safety net, whether Civil War pensions or public housing or food stamps or aid to poor women and children: that it breeds dependency, robs people of self-motivation and self-worth, and ultimately imprisons people in poverty. Perhaps that’s what West meant to say.

Instead, his factually incorrect reference to what his party has “always” supported just came across as ignorant. Conservatives can and do argue that the safety net should be severely cut back, privatized (as Rep. Paul Ryan and other Republicans want to do) or done away with altogether. Democrats are ready and willing to have that debate. But to equate it to slavery is the kind of bizarre, over the top rhetoric that West has become known for, but that does nothing to advance his argument.

And by the way, the most “insidious form of slavery” that exists in the world today? That would be actual slavery, which continues to exist, including child sexual exploitation that amounts to slavery, all around the world, imprisoning more than 12 million people.

If Congressman West really thinks giving a family a couple hundred dollars on a debit card every month to buy food is dehumanizing, his reputation as one of Congress’ most bizarre members is well deserved.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport