Republicans have taken the Senate and expanded their fiefdom in the House, but the Democrats seem to have won the intellectual narrative nonetheless. The GOP, inexplicably, is having its Thomas Piketty moment.
Seriously, guys: Republicans have suddenly started caring about inequality.
Inequality has obviously crossed the GOP’s radar screen before, but like other phenomena that get noticed and politely ignored — washroom attendants, global warming — it didn’t generate much comment. When Republicans have taken note of our country’s income and wealth gaps, the sentiment has usually been dismissive and disdainful, full of accusations of class warfare waged by resentful, lazy people unwilling to hoist themselves up by their bootstraps.
Then, in just the past week, many of the likely 2016 Republican presidential contenders began airing concerns about the poor and condemning the outsize fortunes of the wealthy.
On Fox News after the State of the Union speech, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) denigrated the administration’s economic track record by doing his best Bernie Sanders impression.
“We’re facing right now a divided America when it comes to the economy. It is true that the top 1 percent are doing great under Barack Obama. Today, the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our national income than any year since 1928,” he said, quoting an oft-cited (by liberals) statistic from the work of economists Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.
Likewise, here’s Mitt Romney, in a speech last week: “Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before.” Sound-bite highlights from his past presidential campaign, you may recall, included a reference to the “47 percent” who don’t pay federal income taxes and a conclusion that “my job is not to worry about those people.”
Apparently his job description has changed.
Jeb Bush, too, has newfound interest in the lower income groups and deep inequity flourishing in our nation. His State of the Union reaction: “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.” Sen. Rand Paul, as well: “Income inequality has worsened under this administration. And tonight, President Obama offers more of the same policies — policies that have allowed the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer.”
Someone up the GOP food chain seems to have decided that inequality and poor people now belong in everyone’s talking points, class warfare be damned. But why?
Maybe to broaden the tent for 2016 by appealing to people who feel “left behind” by the recovery. But the poor are not exactly the most politically engaged constituency and seem unlikely to switch allegiances. To put it in Dos Equis terms: The poor don’t always vote, but when they do, they vote Democratic.
Maybe it’s the result of rebounding economic growth and declining unemployment, which means Republicans have to be more precise about exactly which part of Obama’s record is vulnerable to criticism. Although of course the rise in inequality long predates Obama’s time in the White House; the top 1 percent’s share of national income has been trending upward since Obama was in high school.
Or maybe it’s really more about reassuring Republicans’ core middle-class voters, who might suspect that Republican-led cuts to safety-net programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance are, well, heartless. For the “compassionate conservatism” reboot to be convincing and guilt-alleviating this time around, though, Republicans need to offer strong anti-poverty proposals of their own. So far — with the exception of Paul Ryan’s plan last year — we’ve mostly heard more of the same tax-cutting, deregulating shtick, whose relevance to inequality and poverty is tenuous at best.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have reconfigured their messaging as well, to focus more on the middle class than the destitute. While the State of the Union speech touched on policies intended to lift those at the bottom — increasing the minimum wage, for example — Obama’s rhetoric mostly emphasized “middle-class economics,” abandoning his previous “bottom-up economics” coinage. Even programs that are usually associated with the poor, such as community college access, have been pitched as a middle-class benefit. And he didn’t even mention one of the starring, bleeding-heart, anti-poverty promises from his speeches the past two years: universal pre-K.
Which brings us to an uneasy question: If Republicans have pivoted to care more about the poor, and Democrats have pivoted to care more about the middle class, who’s left to look out for America’s newly neglected rich?