There may be 21 months remaining between now and the 2016 presidential election, but both Republicans and Democrats have come to an agreement on what the election should be about. They may use different terms to describe it — Democrats will talk about “inequality,” while Republicans will tout “opportunity” — but they’re both going to focus on the ways the economy isn’t doing right by Americans who aren’t rich.
In the name of pundit courage, I offer a prediction: Republicans are going to lose the argument. They’ve practically lost it already.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned just in the past couple of days. We all know that both sides are looking for new policy ideas they can present that will demonstrate their commitment to lifting up middle class and poorer Americans, so what’s on offer? Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, has released a plan that includes giving every working American who makes less than six figures a $1,000 tax credit, gives people further tax credits if they save money, limits corporate tax deductions for CEO compensation, and pays for it with a financial transactions tax (presented as a Wall Street “high roller” fee). Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to cut Social Security disability payments.
OK, so that’s not entirely fair — Republicans are, in fact, talking about what they can do for less affluent Americans. For instance, Politico reports today that even Mitt Romney has decided that the three pillars of his 2016 campaign will be a “muscular” foreign policy, helping the poor, and supporting the middle class. Which sounds interesting, but at this point it constitutes nothing more than talking about how this is an issue he’s going to be talking about. You have to look pretty hard to find an actual idea Republicans have.
And while they’re figuring that out, it looks like Democrats are going to keep rolling out one policy proposal after another, whether it’s Van Hollen’s tax credit (which other Democrats are also going to be advocating), President Obama’s plan to make community college free, or upcoming pushes on issues like paid family leave and more inclusive overtime rules.
Republicans start out at a significant disadvantage in this debate for a number of reasons. First, they tend to talk about the economy from a level far removed from that of ordinary people. Enact policies like low taxes and light regulation on corporations, they say, and the result will be growth that ends up benefiting everyone. But now they’re acknowledging that they have to talk about middle class and even poor people, and offer them something more specific. That runs into their second problem, that because they believe in small government, unlike Democrats they aren’t likely to support policies that offer direct, immediate benefits.
The policies they do support, furthermore, will immediately be characterized by their opponents as being one of two types: attacks on the poor being deceptively offered as efforts to help them (like devolving responsibility for safety net programs to the states) or moves to help rich people being deceptively offered as a boon to the middle class (like most Republican tax cuts).
Republicans will, of course, say that these criticisms are unfair. But the default assumption voters have is that the GOP is the party of the rich. That means that in order to persuade them, Republicans can’t can’t just come up with some reasonable policy ideas, they have to offer something twice as compelling as what Democrats are proposing. And when Democrats are saying something straightforward, like “Our plan is to give you a thousand bucks and pay for it by taxing Wall Street,” while Republicans are trying to explain how block grants would bring a more efficient allocation of benefits, it isn’t hard to see who’s going to win the argument. Just try to imagine how much work someone like Mitt Romney — he of Bain Capital and the “47 percent” — is going to have to do to convince voters that he’s really the one who’s on the side of the middle class.
If we look back at the recent history of presidential campaigns, we see that Republicans win the argument on the economy under three conditions. The first is when there’s a Democrat in the White House and the economy is terrible, as it was in 1980. The second is when there’s a Republican in the White House and the economy is doing well, as it was in 1984 or 1988. And the third is when the economy is doing so-so, but the election turns on an entirely different set of issues, as in 2004 — in other words, when there really isn’t much of a discussion on the economy.
The 2016 election doesn’t look (at the moment anyway) like any of those three. Unless there’s a dramatic change, the economy will be doing well in broad terms like growth and job creation, but voters will want to hear what the parties are going to propose to improve wages, working conditions, and the fortunes of the middle class and those struggling to join it. Winning that argument will be an enormously difficult task for the GOP, and they aren’t off to a promising start.