August 21, 2012

As Republicans head toward next week’s convention something extraordinary has come into view now that their ticket is complete.

Mitt Romney came from wealth and went on to build his own quarter-of-a-billion dollar fortune. Paul Ryan, who has never worked a day in the private sector (outside a few months in the family firm) reports a net worth of as much as $7 million, thanks to trusts and inheritances from his and his wife’s family.

Wealthy political candidates are nothing new, of course. But we’ve never had two wealthy candidates on a national ticket whose top priority is to reduce already low taxes on the well-to-do while raising taxes on everyone else — even as they propose to slash programs that serve the poor, or that (like college aid) create chances for the lowly born to rise.

Call them the Drawbridge Republicans. As the moniker implies, these are wealthy Republicans who have no qualms about pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Such sentiments used to be reserved for the political fringe. The most prominent example was Steve Forbes, whose twin obsessions during his vanity presidential runs in 1996 and 2000 — marginal tax rates and inflation — were precisely what you’d expect from an heir in a cocoon.

(In case you were wondering, Ronald Reagan wasn’t a Drawbridge because he entered office when marginal rates, at 70 percent, were truly damaging to the economy. But as GOP business leaders now tell me privately, the Clinton-era top rate of 39.6 percent, let alone today’s 35 percent, are hardly a barrier to work or investment).

Most rich Republicans who champion regressive tax plans find it necessary to at least pretend they’re doing something to help average folks. John McCain, who’s lived large for decades thanks to his wife’s inheritance, famously had trouble keeping track of how many homes he owned — but McCain also tried bravely to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” and touted education initiatives that made this claim plausible.

Today’s Drawbridge Republicans can’t be bothered. Yes, when their political back is to the wall — as Romney’s increasingly is — they’ll slap together a page of bullet points and dub it “a plan for the middle class.” But this is only under duress. The rest of the time they seem blissfully unaware of how off-key they sound. As the humorist Andy Borowitz tweeted the other day, “As a general matter, it’s a bad idea to talk about austerity if you just had a horse lose in the Olympics.”

Contrast conservative Prime Minister (and heir) David Cameron’s decision to defer his plans to lower the top 50 percent marginal rate in the UK. “When you’re taking the country through difficult times and difficult decisions,” Cameron said, “you’ve got to take the country with you. That means permanently trying to make the argument that what you’re doing is fair and seen to be fair.” As his spokesman added: “We need to ask those with the broadest shoulders to contribute the most.”  

Now that’s a conservative ruling class with a conscience! Can anyone imagine Romney and Ryan saying the same?

The interesting question concerns psychology. Drawbridge Republicans are flesh and blood human beings peddling indefensible priorities. How do they manage it and still feel good about themselves? One possibility is that they’re simply missing the genes for empathy and self-awareness. (Steve Forbes always did seem a bit like a bubble boy whose inheritance left him impervious). 

But for today’s GOP ticket that explanation feels off. Romney, for all his awkwardness, campaigned and governed in a liberal state, and he enacted a pioneering universal health care law that’s helped many of modest means achieve health security. Ryan is equally mysterious — the boy-next-door who pays lip service to “upward mobility” yet seems to have no notion his plans would likely produce what liberal analyst Robert Greenstein calls “the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history.”

My hunch is that extreme forms of rationalization and other defense mechanisms help Drawbridge Republicans cope with the cognitive dissonance. The growth of partisan media makes it easy to tune out disquieting dissenting views.

Whatever lies behind it, the rise of the Drawbridge Republicans makes the stakes of this election even higher. If Romney and Ryan actually win on their Drawbridge agenda, the United States will have crossed a scary new Rubicon for a supposedly advanced democracy. For years, whenever I’ve heard people criticize “limousine liberals,” I’ve always thought, well, at least that’s better than being a “limousine jerk.” Now it turns out that’s exactly what a Drawbridge Republican is.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center.” He writes a weekly online column for The Post.