Donald Trump is running amok, throwing his opponents off guard with personal barbs and insults. The president ignores real problems including a deteriorating Middle East and economic instability, preferring to trot out a largely irrelevant executive order on guns (which would have stopped none of the recent horrific mass killings). It's enough to make one despair entirely about our political system.
Fortunately, all is not bleak. In panels moderated by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., several GOP presidential candidates gathered at the Kemp Foundation in Columbia, S.C., to discuss poverty and conservative solutions to help 14.7 million people still mired in poverty. Ryan, who has spent years studying the root causes of poverty and what works and does not, told a gathering that anti-poverty programs are designed to help people who fall into poverty rather than "help people get out of poverty." Poverty, he explained, is not just about "deprivation" for which the solution is purely material, as if we are "filling potholes." It is about ending the isolation of those in poverty who struggle outside the economy, with little hope of achieving success. As he said, "We need to stop measuring inputs [i.e., how much money we spend], rather than the number of people who get out of poverty."
What ensued was a series of panels that restored one's faith that there are sincere public servants looking to restore the American dream. Jeb Bush, who has taken his lumps on the campaign trail, exuded confidence and thoughtfulness in discussing his new anti-poverty program. If we have a society in which those who are born poor stay poor, we have "a society in decline." He laid out his proposals: block-granting monies to the states, solidifying work requirements and training programs, and making certain programsencourage intact families. His proficiency on topics from school reform to barriers to entrepreneurship was impressive.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked about his parents, who both grew up poor (something he rarely discusses but that certainly reveals something about his life and worldview), and the success of the earned-income tax credit, which he increased in New Jersey, and his drug courts that aim to treat addiction. In common-sense terms, he explained that the president can talk all he likes about the value of work but if going to work means people forfeit all the benefits they receive and lose their apartments, they will choose dependence over work. His lively description of the role of teachers unions in blocking needed reforms was both entertaining and persuasive.
With his thoughtful questioning and sunny demeanor, Scott may have earned himself a place on some VP shortlists. Sitting alongside Ryan, they certainly presented the new face of the GOP.
The contrast between the attendees, on one hand, and the candidates (Trump, libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas) who declined the invitation to appear, on the other, is stark. The latter have no concrete solutions to solve problems, just hot-button rhetoric and and clichés. They are unserious characters. However, the former - call them Jack Kemp conservatives or reform conservatives - are the best of the conservative movement. They seek to restrain the federal government not as an end unto itself, but as part of a holistic approach to enlisting states, the private sector and the rest of civil society in improving opportunity and removing the barriers that keep too many from experiencing the American dream.
To them, we can say, well done.