Opinion writer

Judging from the rhetoric of the GOP presidential candidates, most of them think they need to appear to want to address inequality to be competitive in a general election. Yet party orthodoxy and GOP primary politics require them to propose to undo President Obama’s redistributive policies — chief among them the Affordable Care Act — and to support a less progressive tax structure than Obama and Democrats do.

How Republicans reconcile these two things — the need to offer solutions to inequality while vowing to roll back Obama’s efforts to redistribute resources downward — will be a key dynamic to watch.

Here’s an early indication of the problem Republicans may face in this regard. Note this exchange between CNBC’s John Harwood and Scott Walker, in which Harwood argues that Walker’s Obamacare replacement would reverse the ACA’s downward redistribution:

HARWOOD: Obamacare redistributed money from high income taxpayers, from healthy people, from younger people, to people who had less money, who were older and sicker. Your repeal would redistribute that money in the other direction. Given the trends of income disparity in the country, why is this the right time for that kind of redistribution?

WALKER: Our system’s purely about freedom. It’s about giving people the freedom. The tax credit goes up by age, not by income. It goes up by age because the credit should be connected to what it actually costs people to get health insurance. It’s not about a redistribution of wealth issue.

We allow people to buy into whatever — give ’em the freedom. We give patients as consumers the freedom to choose where they want to go or — frankly, part of our plan says if you want to pool together your resources as consumers, and pick your own plan, you can do that on your own. You have the freedom to take this tax credit, to take your money and pick where you want to go — or if you want to have health care at all. We don’t have a mandate. We wiped the mandate out. We say you can control your own money, with money for a health savings account. Whether you have your own health care plan through your employer or you buy one individually, it’s all about freedom.

Note that Walker doesn’t deny Harwood’s suggestion that his plan would redistribute resources upwards. He says his plan isn’t about accomplishing this species of redistribution, without addressing whether his plan would do that. (See Jonathan Chait’s piece for the details on why his plan actually would do that.) Walker’s answer is that relaxing Obamacare’s regulations — which he repeatedly describes as “freedom” — is a worthy end in itself. In this interview Walker doesn’t take this argument to the next logical step, i.e. that restoring this freedom will ultimately lead to lower costs by unshackling the free market, even though he very well may believe it to be true.

Most of the GOP candidates seem to agree that one of the primary obstacles to combating inequality and restoring economic opportunity and mobility — which they agree is a central challenge we face — is that there is too much government-engineered downward redistribution of wealth. To be fair, it’s still early, and we still don’t know what their overall agendas will look like. But what we have seen so far does point in this direction.

Jeb Bush tacitly premised his big economic speech on the idea that the primary driver of inequality is dependence on the federal government. Marco Rubio’s tax plan could result in a hugely regressive tax cut, which he says would unshackle investment that helps employ bartenders like his father. Many of the candidates have flirted with the idea of a flat (i.e., less progressive) tax.  The GOP’s primary economic vision — to which the GOP candidates will probably pledge fealty to sooner or later — continues to be shaped around the Paul Ryan vision, which would  impose its cuts disproportionately on programs for people of lower incomes. The repeal of Obamacare — which all the candidates have vowed — would undo or reverse its redistributive effects.

Obviously it’s possible to genuinely believe that reversing Obama’s redistributive policies is the right thing to do, because downward redistribution is unfair or traps people in dependency, or because it ultimately does more economic harm than good, or because regulations that restrict economic freedom are inherently wrong and/or not worth the trade-off. Some Republicans would probably argue that undoing these policies doesn’t really count as upward redistribution and is more a matter of restoring some sort of natural outcome that Obama’s policies distorted. But that might be a tough case to make politically, particularly if Republicans are questioned directly on whether their policies would redistribute resources upwards and on why that’s defensible, as Harwood has done to Walker here.

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* SANDERS ORGANIZING UP A STORM IN IOWA: The New York Times’ Jason Horowitz has a useful look at Bernie Sanders’ surge in Iowa, which is driven in part by voters who say he makes them feel like they “belong” to something big, and in part by his campaign’s brute organizing:

It now has 53 people on staff, with a “robust hiring plan” made possible by Mr. Sanders’s fund-raising success with small donors, according to his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver. This past weekend alone, he said, the campaign’s 1,700 volunteers marched out of 15 campaign offices throughout the state to knock on 17,000 doors and make 10,000 phone calls. They call it Bern-Storming.

The question is whether Sanders’ support is confined mostly to white progressives, allowing him to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire, and is not demographically broad enough (as is Hillary Clinton’s) to compete among Dems nationally.

 * WHAT TO WATCH TODAY: At 2 PM, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware will announce his position on the Iran deal. He is one of the remaining genuinely undecided Democrats, so his decision may help us get a sense of whether supporters of the deal will be able to keep the votes against it below 60, thus avoiding a veto-override fight.

* IRAN DEAL GAINS MOMENTUM: Four more House Democrats have now come out and endorsed the Iran deal, and crucially, they are all from New York or Florida, where opposition to the deal was thought to be concentrated. Some had expected New York Dems to come out in droves against it after Chuck Schumer did, but that isn’t happening.

Reminder: If Obama’s veto of a GOP resolution disapproving of the deal is not over-ridden in the House, as seems increasingly likely, it’s over — there is no need for a veto override vote in the Senate, which proponents would very much like to avoid.

* SHARP PARTISAN DIVIDE OVER IRAN AGREEMENT: Though some polls have found Americans oppose the Iran deal, the Post’s Scott Clement reports on a new national poll showing American tilt narrowly towards it, by 52-47. Note this:

Democrats and Republicans are polar opposites in their view of the accord….Nearly 7 in 10 Democrats support the deal. An identical share of Republicans are opposed. Among independents, 6 in 10 express support.

This is probably the result of Obama spending so much time publicly selling it.

* EXPLAINING DONALD TRUMP’S RISE: Bloomberg’s John McCormick takes a close look at new Iowa polling and concludes that Trump’s surge in the state is because “he’s been able to sell himself as the straight-talker most candidates aspire to be,” with a large chunk of Iowa Republicans believing he “tells it like it is.”

Of course, claiming you will deport 11 million and replace Obamacare with “something terrific” isn’t “straight talk” or “telling it like it is.” Maybe the “straight talk” these voters think they’re hearing is Trump’s prolific insulting of immigrants?

* HOW DONALD TRUMP’S DEMAGOGUERY WORKS: Michael Gerson gets to the heart of how Trump’s populism really works:

The country — betrayed by elites, beset by foreigners, exploited and humiliated at every turn — needs more than policy papers. It needs a savior. Populism is not identical to demagoguery, but it attracts demagogues….Trump’s political approach is defined by the fomenting of conflict with foreigners: with scheming Mexicans and predatory Chinese. Remove the appeal to base instincts and you are left with little but opposition to entitlement reform.

Your regular reminder: Multiple national polls have shown that large percentages of Republicans agree with his specific views on immigration. Maybe that helps explain his appeal.

 * QUOTE OF THE DAY, TRUMP-HAS-UNMASKED-THE-REAL-GOP EDITION: The Hill has a good piece explaining how Trump’s positions have forced a genuine GOP immigration debate. One Latino Republican notes:

“Trump is making self-deportation sound like a benign policy.”

Romney, of course, got only 27 percent of the Latino vote, and some of the current GOP presidential candidates have been gravitating towards Trump’s positions.