Can Republicans Neutralize Issue of Economic Inequality?

Now that it’s become hip for Republicans to admit economic inequality is a real problem (otherwise they’d be stuck with inane efforts to take credit for economic growth, and even then they’d be vulnerable to accusations of indifference to deeper challenges), you have to wonder how deep their interest actually is. I’d say Paul Waldman has the right analogy:

The current Republican efforts to reposition themselves on economic questions remind me a little of how Democrats used to talk about national security before the Iraq War went south and discredited Republican wisdom on the issue. Democrats were always defensive about it, and when they tried to come up with a new message for whatever campaign was looming, the point was never to win the argument over national security. They just wanted to minimize the damage the issue could do to them, or at best, fight to a draw so that the election would hinge on issues where they were stronger.

If Republicans are to do that now on economics, it isn’t a bad start to say their focus has to shift to what people who aren’t wealthy or business owners (or both) care about. Now they just have to come up with an answer to this question: Okay, so what are you going to do about it?

Many Republicans would probably prefer to stick to a populism without economics, one that uses issues like immigration or the latest culture war flare-up to convince voters that Democrats are part of a hostile “elite,” while the GOP is the party of the common man and woman. This has certainly worked before. But the problem for them is that they are now on the wrong side of majority opinion on many of those cultural issues. Which only means that, when it comes to their new-found economic populism, there will be, if anything, more pressure to get specific.

Ah, but the trouble is, conservatives are not on the wrong side of majority opinion on cultural issues in their own party. So there will be a constant temptation among candidates and voters to keep harping on those issues in primaries and then find some other way to win general elections. One way is to find a credible economic populist message, if such a thing is possible for them (I’d say it’s not a very lively option for them once the usual menu of tax credit tweaks or consolidations is exhausted). But far easier than any ideological adjustment will be some combination of candidate charisma, base mobilization, money and luck–or at least the belief that victory could be achieved that way. This is why, as I suggested this morning, Scott Walker is so intriguing to conservatives: he’s won in a blue state three times while being behaving like every liberal’s caricature of a conservative villain. Why compromise, innovate, or concede ideological ground if you don’t have to? That will be the implicit message to Republicans of Walker’s campaign, and probably several others.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.