The Magazine

The Man Who Gave Us Welfare Reform

Robert B. Carleson, 1931-2006.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By GARY BAUER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

REAGANAUTS FOUND THEMSELVES IN MOURNING again last week as another of the Gipper's loyal servants unexpectedly passed away. Hard on the heels of the deaths of Caspar Weinberger and Lyn Nofziger came the sad news that Robert B. Carleson, architect of Reagan's welfare reform, had succumbed to complications from recent surgery. Hundreds of the old Reagan team gathered in the rotunda of the Ronald Reagan Trade Center, just a few blocks from the White House, to share a few tears and a few laughs, as a dozen old friends, led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese, reflected on Carleson's life and contributions to the Reagan revolution.

A glowing Washington Times editorial the day before the memorial service referred to him as "the Quiet Giant," and it was an apt description. Bob Carleson was seldom in the headlines during his years on the Reagan team and had no hunger for the spotlight. Yet Bob is considered by many to be the man who had the most to do with Ronald Reagan's journey from the governorship of California to the Oval Office.

At the beginning of Reagan's second term as governor, the state was facing a welfare crisis. California's welfare system was exploding, having added over one-and-a-half million people to the rolls in the previous ten years. Taxpayers were being hit with a bill for $2.5 billion a year. The legislature was in the hands of Democrats, who were ready to defend the failed system against any reform. But that didn't stop Reagan from announcing that reform was indeed at the top of the agenda, because the state was facing a "fiscal and human disaster."

In true Reagan fashion, the president decided to put together a reform team that was as far removed from the welfare establishment as possible. The search led to a relatively obscure deputy director of the California Department of Public Works, Bob Carleson. In short order, Bob put together a task force that quickly delivered a plan to the governor that would help the truly needy while stopping the explosion in welfare bureaucracy and dependency.

The Democrats screamed in opposition. The Nixon administration wasn't happy, either. In true "me too" Republican form, the White House was headed down the same dead-end road of the past, with a national welfare plan built on failed liberal ideas. In short, Ronald Reagan and his trusted aide, Carleson, were opposed by everyone--except the people of California. Armed with Carleson's insightful analysis, Governor Reagan mobilized taxpayers and even threatened to put welfare reform on the ballot. Eventually, the entrenched welfare lobby saw the writing on the wall and folded.

Over the next three years the Carleson reform plan produced a decline of 300,000 in the welfare rolls, while aid for the truly needy actually went up. This was compassionate conservatism way ahead of its time. In fact, so successful was the Reagan model developed by Carleson that it helped launch the governor onto the national political stage. In his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan pointed to the Carleson reform plan as his greatest policy achievement in California. When Reagan won, he brought Carleson with him to the White House as special assistant to the president for policy development. It was there that Bob and I met and became friends.

As we worked together in the "Reagan Revolution," it became clear to me that Bob Carleson was no mere number-cruncher or policy wonk. He was, in fact, a passionate man, which is not surprising since we worked for a president who was passionate about freedom and America. Bob had an incredible love for our country, believing, as Reagan did, that we had a special "rendezvous with destiny" that required us to be a "shining city on a hill." He was also passionate about the poor. Like most conservatives, he had to endure constant attacks from the political left, which attempted to smear him, along with Reagan, as cruel and hard-hearted. But Carleson cared so much about the poor that he devoted the majority of his adult life to trying to reform the failed programs that were creating generational poverty and cycles of dependency. Bob wanted the poor to have their dignity restored through work and education. He wanted to empower them by giving them the same choice that all Americans have. And in the process he remembered that every dollar that went to help the truly needy came out of the pockets of America's taxpayers.

Surprisingly, the reform Carleson set in motion gained momentum that kept going long after Ronald Reagan left office. In 1996, President Clinton, facing a GOP-controlled Congress committed to many of Carleson's ideas, finally caved and signed a national welfare reform bill. The "Quiet Giant" had prevailed again.

Gary Bauer, director of the Office of Policy Development at the Reagan White House, currently leads the public policy group American Values.