This should not be a hard fight for the Republicans to win. Americans are less receptive to class warfare arguments after three years of hearing Obama make them than they were when he first took office. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans reject the view of this country as divided between “haves” and “have nots” by a 58-41 margin (in 2008, they were evenly divided 49-49).
Moreover, addressing income inequality is low on the American people’s list of priorities: 82 percent say it is extremely or very important to “grow and expand the economy” and 70 percent say it is extremely or very important to “increase the equality of opportunity for people to get ahead if they want to” (emphasis added). But only 46 percent say that it should be a priority to “reduce the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor.”
In other words, a campaign focused on “fairness” should be a losing campaign. Yet somehow the leading GOP presidential contenders seem determined to turn Obama’s weak hand into a winning one. First, Newt Gingrich launches class warfare attacks on Mitt Romney that would make Obama blush. Then, Romney declares that he’s “not concerned about the very poor,” that “corporations are people,” and brags in economically depressed Detroit about owning four cars. Then, Rick Santorum steps up to defend income inequality, declaring: “There is income inequality in America. There always has been and hopefully — and I do say that — there always will be.”
Instead of defending income inequality, Republicans should be turning Obama’s income-inequality attack around on him. They should be saying: Mr. President, your policies exacerbate income inequality. Since you took office, 2.6 million Americans have fallen beneath the poverty line. Government dependency is at an all-time high. Nearly 13 million are unemployed, and millions more are under-employed — working part time because they can’t find a full-time job. Still others have simply given up on finding a job and dropped out of the work force entirely. Our problem isn’t income inequality; it’s income stagnation. The message should be: Mr. President, you’re responsible for this. You are making income inequality worse.
Unlike the president, conservatives don’t want to divide up a shrinking economic pie more equitably. We want to grow the pie so everyone gets a bigger slice. We want to see everyone’s income rise. And truth is, when the economy is growing, and incomes are rising, no one cares about income inequality. That is the kind of problem we wish we had in the United States today. Republicans should make the case that the GOP will promote upward mobility and grow the economy for all Americans, while Obama’s policies have given us downward mobility and economic stagnation.
Unfortunately, Republicans seem terrified that Obama will succeed in painting them as defending the rich. How else to explain why Mitt Romney limits his capital gains tax cut to those making less than $200,000? There is no economic rationale for this. And in announcing his tax plan last week, Romney made a point of distinguishing between deductions for “middle income families” (which he’d protect) and those for the “top 1 percent” (which he won’t). Why is a GOP candidate even using the term “top 1 percent”? That is the language of Occupy Wall Street.
Instead of fearing Obama’s class warfare attacks, Republicans should go on the offense, pointing out that it is the GOP that want to means-test government spending and take away the billions of dollars in government benefits, taxpayer subsidies and corporate welfare the wealthy receive each year and do not need. Republicans should propose a “Buffett rule” of their own: Warren Buffett does not need Medicare. And Republicans should make clear that they will end the government handouts that Obama has been giving to his wealthy backers. As Hoover Institution scholar Peter Schweizer has pointed out, 71 percent of Energy Department grants and loans went to President Obama’s political cronies, who raised $458,000 for his campaign and were, in turn, approved for grants or loans of nearly $11.4 billion. Apparently, Obama’s idea of class warfare is that the rich pay more taxes, but they can have it back in spades if they contribute to his presidential campaign.
Sadly, Republicans are not fighting on those terms right now. They had better start soon or it could cost them the election.