Republicans in Washington and out on the campaign trail are suddenly talking about a favorite issue of the left: income inequality. There was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on 60 Minutes Sunday, bemoaning that only the "1 percent" had reaped the benefits of the recent job boom. And out in California—at an event hosted by the Koch Brothers, no less—three of the party's 2016 contenders blamed President Obama's policies for adding to the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
Is this all the start of a Clintonian triangulation, a bid by the GOP to co-opt the hobby horse of Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and lately, Hillary Clinton? If it is, it doesn't appear to be fully thought-out.
In the same joint interview in which they acknowledged the problem, McConnell and Speaker John Boehner summarily rejected nearly all of the president's ideas for alleviating it. Raise the minimum wage? "A bad idea," Boehner replied, arguing that it discourages hiring. Increase taxes on the wealthy to finance cuts for middle-income earners? "Dead. Real dead," the speaker declared. Make community college tuition free? Too expensive, McConnell said. Boehner did warm to the idea of increasing the child-care tax credit for working families, but only as part of a broader tax reform plan that he has previously suggested was unlikely to reach Obama's desk.
More telling than the expected dismissal of Democratic ideas, however, was the lack of new proposals from the GOP leaders and contenders. Boehner blamed a familiar foil, Obamacare, for stifling job creation. But putting aside the debate over the law's merit as health policy, it's hard to argue that it has significantly damaged the economy in the year since it has been fully implemented, which has coincided with the highest job growth in 15 years. And the people who have benefitted most tangibly from the law are those in the middle class and below, who have secured health insurance through expanded Medicaid or private coverage that they didn’t previously have. Nearly five years after the law's passage, Republicans haven't agreed on a long-promised replacement for the Affordable Care Act, a failure that could be amplified in a few months if the Supreme Court knocks out subsidies for consumers who bought insurance in the 36 states using the federal exchange. Who would that hurt the most? Again, the working and middle class.
Moreover, Republicans have not let up on their rhetorical emphasis on "cutting regulations," another long-standing platform plank that may be economically legitimate but that appeals more to executives than to employees, the bosses rather than the far more numerous contingent of people who work for them.
Out in Palm Springs, Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio denounced income equality before a group of wealthy donors associated with Charles and David Koch, the financiers who have, fairly or not, become known for backing candidates who support policies beneficial to their business interests. The irony was, well, rich. As described in The Washington Post, Cruz made reference to “the top one percent, the millionaires and billionaires the president loves to demagogue, one or two of whom are here with us tonight." He then added: “The people who have been hammered for the last six years are working men and women.” Cruz, Paul, and Rubio aren't alone among Republicans noticing the wealth gap. Mitt Romney has suggested he'll focus on poverty if he runs for a third time, and his 2012 sidekick, Paul Ryan, began talking about the issue even before that campaign ended.
That so many top Republicans are talking about income inequality is, in itself, a big deal. For years, conservatives have dismissed the Democrats' focus on the issue as an element of "class warfare"—a thinking that even led some on the right to forbid references to "the middle class" on the grounds that it represented a liberal terminology of stratification. But so far, it's mostly just a rhetorical head fake. In some ways, it is also a criticism of last resort for the GOP, which can no longer point to high unemployment, slow growth, or record gas prices to ridicule the Obama economy. What will be more telling is if Republicans put forward fresh policies in the budget proposals they produce in the spring, or in the platforms that candidate announce on the campaign trail. Then we'll know if the fight to close the income gap has really been joined.