Are Republicans Getting Serious About Income Inequality?

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Speeches by Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan Tuesday night might augur a shift in the GOP orthodoxy.

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A lament you'll hear from many liberals, and some moderate Republicans, these days is that the GOP seems to have learned nothing from its defeats in November. After all, even after getting pounded over Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent remark and losing to a president who campaigned on nothing so much as raising taxes on the wealthy, congressional Republicans refuse to budge on tax rates during the ongoing fiscal-cliff negotiation. Clearly, these critics say, Republicans haven't gotten the message that being the party of the rich won't work.

But step away from the cliff and the story gets a bit more interesting. Consider Politico's (way-too-soon) story about 2016 contenders Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, who spoke Tuesday night at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner.

While Congress dawdled this summer, Rubio, 41, assigned his policy experts to figure out ways to help make the middle class wealthier -- and add a dose of substance to the charismatic presidential hopeful's résumé. Reaching out to academics and think tanks to build Rubio's network, the senator and his staff developed a two-year reinvention project and an "upward mobility agenda," including programs like early childhood education, school choice and incentives for entrepreneurs .... "The answer," Rubio will say in his after-dinner remarks, "is not to make rich people poorer. The answer is to make poor people richer."

Elsewhere in the story, a series of anonymous sources insist that Paul Ryan was very concerned about the poor during his unsuccessful vice-presidential bid, and that he bridled behind the scenes against Mitt Romney and his advisers' unwillingness to talk about poverty and economic mobility. (This has the benefit of being undebunkable; the authors do archly note that the need to discuss poverty is something "he has seldom said during the course of his political career.")

A few days ago, Bloomberg's Josh Barro -- a former staffer writer at the conservative National Review who has become a strident critic of right-wing economic thinking -- wrote a column positing that conservatives must embrace redistribution. Both sides acknowledge the growing gap between rich and poor, he wrote; liberals talk about it by complaining about the growth at the top, conservatives by worrying about growing dependence on government among the poor.

The key problem in this debate isn't that liberals' ideas are bad, though many of them (especially on trade) are. It's that conservatives have no serious proposals of their own on rising inequality.

The main problem with [the orthodox Republican tax-cutting] position is the lack of evidence to support it: Lower taxes and a smaller government might raise GDP growth, but there's no particular reason to assume that growth would accrue in a more equal manner than we have experienced recently. The main effect of Ryan-style fiscal policy, which makes taxes both lower and less progressive and while shrinking benefits, would be a rise in after-tax inequality.

Barro lays out a few ideas, all of which are worth reading, and suggests there's no way Republicans will like them. The problem is that almost all of them will involve the 'R'-word -- redistribution.

The trick with Ryan and Rubio's next moves is, of course, what the specifics are. Ryan and Rubio are both light on specifics, although Rubio seems to be interested in immigration reform that could beef up the middle class, which is on Barro's list. Jonathan Chait naturally leapt to snark this, but even the rhetorical shift is news. The focus on the middle class and on upward mobility, and especially statements like Rubio's that emphasize closing the income gap, suggests the possibility of a new move toward innovative policies among GOP rising stars -- and, yes, maybe even toward the 'R'-word.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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