Republicans Try to Beat Democrats at Their Own Game on Economic Inequality

Marco Rubio isn't the first to try to put economic fairness on GOP grounds.

Sen. Marco Rubio addresses an event held by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, January 8, 2014 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.  (National Journal)

As Democrats push to make income inequality one of the central issues of 2014, Republicans are rolling with the punches and presenting themselves as the party that has truly helped the poor.

Democrats used Wednesday's 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and Tuesday's Senate bill on unemployment insurance to shift attention toward the wealth gap, and President Obama will likely focus on it in his State of the Union speech later this month, too.

But Republicans have refused to simply surrender the turf to Democrats, or to ignore the issue altogether. Rather than ceding the spotlight of Wednesday's anniversary to his opponents, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida gave a speech in which he argued that President Obama's economic policies have hurt the poor and that the so-called war, begun by President Johnson, has been a failure.

Democrats, Rubio said, "help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it."

It was the latest instance this week in which Republicans have tried to turn the tables on Democrats, who have aimed to draw attention from the Affordable Care Act's troubled rollout and focus it on what they consider a more favorable issue.

Democrats scored a small victory Tuesday by advancing the Senate bill on unemployment insurance to a full debate, but Republicans made the case that Obama's economic policies have hurt the people the bill was meant to help. Zeroing in on the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations, Republicans took a notably egalitarian tone.

"We all know the stock market's been doing great, so the richest among us are doing just fine," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech on Tuesday. "But what about the poor? What about working-class folks? What about folks who work in industries that liberals don't approve of, like coal?"

McConnell, who is up for reelection this year, has pushed for an amendment that would offset the cost of the bill, and he called for a one-year delay in the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.

Other big-name Republicans — including Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn and House Speaker John Boehner — followed McConnell's lead. Boehner called for an unemployment insurance amendment to offset costs, and suggested in a press release that Obama delay the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, approve the Keystone Pipeline, and reduce EPA regulations on power plants to promote job growth.

It's understandable that Republicans have entered the ring in the fight over economic equality, rather than avoiding or brushing off the topic, considering that voters strongly favor policies that help the poor. In a December ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57 percent of respondents said they wanted the federal government to pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.

With Obamacare still struggling, Republicans have every reason to try to tie the debate over income inequality to health care. Party leaders have argued that the law could hurt small businesses and lead to fewer full-time jobs. And the law is as unpopular as ever, according to a CNN/ORC survey in which 62 percent of respondents said they opposed the law. Health-care reform was the most commonly cited issue in a poll asking Americans which problems the government needs to work on in 2014, mentioned by the majority of participants in an AP/NORC poll.

While Republicans try to appeal to the lower middle class on health care, Democrats are countering with an emphasis on the federal minimum wage, sponsoring House and Senate versions of a bill that would raise the wage to $11 over two years. Nearly two-thirds of the ABC News/Washington Post poll's respondents supported such a raise, and Republicans have widely opposed it. Rubio maintained that raising the minimum wage would not help the poor in the long term, calling it "at best only a partial solution" in his Wednesday speech.

Rubio and other conservatives have made the case that unemployment insurance is a distraction from the best solution to unemployment: jobs. If Democrats succeed in making the wealth gap one of the top issues of the next year, expect Republicans to continue standing their ground, responding with a message of job creation.

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