Opinion

Commentary: Bauer's bad choices show he's not ready to be S.C. governor

Since Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer compared providing benefits to poor people to feeding stray animals, encouraging them to breed, we've been inundated by liberals outraged nearly as much by the suggestion that there's any linkage between poverty and education as by the language, and a few angry conservatives who are applauding him for having the "courage" to speak up.

Too bad we haven't heard much from moderates, and the more grounded (and more numerous) conservatives. People who would say: Yes, poor kids do perform much worse in school than middle- and upper-class kids, and we have to do something about that. Yes, we do have a problem getting poor parents to show up for meetings with teachers or even return phone calls to teachers — not to mention helping their kids with homework or instilling in them the value of an education — and we have to do something about that. And yes, it is at least worth discussing some tough-love measures — although we have to be careful that we don't just make the problem worse. But when you talk about those problems in such offensive terms, you do more harm than good. You back people into corners and prevent that conversation from ever happening.

Let's face it: There's nothing out of the ordinary about attacking the "welfare state" and demanding that "those people" start pulling their weight. It's boilerplate Republican stump material, dating at least to Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens." If that's what you're looking for in a candidate, I dare say you can find it in any of Mr. Bauer's primary opponents.

What catapulted Mr. Bauer onto the front page of this and other S.C. newspapers and generated national attention is the "stray animals" language — a campaign aide who called me Monday afternoon argued that it was a metaphor, not an analogy — and the suggestion that we ought to withhold food from poor children so their parents will stop "breeding."

And you thought Gov. Hiking the Appalachian Trail was an embarrassment?

Defenders have suggested it was simply a poor choice of words. He's not the most polished speaker, they say. No harm, no foul.

They might be right that it was simply a poor choice of words. But they miss the point. This isn't Mr. Bauer's first spectacularly poor choice. Or his second. (Speeding down a wet interstate at 101 mph, while masquerading as a law enforcement official; aggressing a cop on Assembly Street; bullying highway officials into overpaying him for land and then "forgetting" to report the profit; bragging about misleading voters with deceptive campaign ads; and on; and on.) It isn't even his worst.

Rather, it is a fresh new demonstration that he has not matured like he has been trying to make us believe, that he is not someone who is ready to be our governor, that he is not the face of South Carolina that we want the nation to see.

Listen to the audiotape, and you'll hear how clearly he brought his ill-considered comparison back to policy (my emphasis added): "You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior."

Mr. Bauer has tried to back away from his comments (so much for "courageous"), saying he never meant to suggest withholding food from poor children. He might be sincere about this. If so, he was either being wantonly reckless or else ignorant.

Welfare reform, which we passed in the early '90s, went a long way toward changing welfare; some say too far, at least when the economy is so bad that even people with graduate degrees can't find jobs. There are now limits to how long parents can receive what we used to call welfare, and they have to go to school or look for work to get those. They don't get the relatively generous bump-ups they used to for each additional child.

That means that for most people whose children receive free or reduced-priced lunch, the only benefits that you could withhold are those lunches, or perhaps food stamps, or Medicaid for the children. Technically, withdrawing the parents' share of food stamps wouldn't be taking food away from the children. Technically.

From what I can make of the brief audiotape, Mr. Bauer's point was at least as much about improving education as punishing the poor. And the fact is that there is a well-established link between test scores and poverty. Education officials take it for granted that everyone understands this; they speak excitedly about those schools that produce high test scores in spite of high poverty levels. The connection is central to our state's worst problems.

The fact is that teachers are frustrated with parents who don't show up for meetings and do nothing to encourage their children. I'm frustrated by this too. I write frequently about parents "who either can't or won't help their children."

But there are big differences between parents who won't help their children and those who can't, because they're working two jobs, in another county, and they barely have time to see their kids. And the way you get through to those two different types of parents is very different.

I don't want to coddle the parents who won't help their kids succeed. I wish they had not had children. But they did, and what happens to the children who had the misfortune of being born to them has a huge effect on our test scores and how would-be employers look at our state and whether South Carolina will be a place our children and grandchildren will want to call home.

Dealing with that problem isn't easy. It's even harder if you have a governor who doesn't wait to engage his brain before he starts speaking.

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