The Republican Party appears to accept that poverty and the inequities of wealth and political piwer that have prevailed over the last 15 years are issues it can no longer ignore. Not without paying a price. After all, Mitt Romney’s cool indifference to the everyday struggles of working Americans went a long way toward sinking his 2012 campaign.
But expressing concern about inequality is one thing. Doing something about it is another. The GOP so far appears more worried about its reputation as being the party of the very, very rich, not so much the empirical reality of its being the party of the very, very rich.
At a recent Republican gathering, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas gave voice to the party’s incongruity of perception and reality. “I think Republicans are and should be the party of the 47 percent,” he said. Later at that same event, the Koch Brothers Trust—the political network of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch—announced plans to spend nearly $1 billion in the next race for the White House, virtually all of it going to the Republican Party’s nominee.
If the GOP were truly troubled by historic rates of income and wealth inequality, it would rubber-stamp President Barack Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy and use the proceeds to fund infrastructure projects—roads, bridges, waterways, sewer systems. Public investments like these have historically garnered broad support, because they are neutral vehicles for achieving the goals of statecraft. Not only would such expenditures create hundreds of thousands of seasonal jobs, as well as many thousands of permanent jobs, and stimulate economic activity on a national scale. And they’d pay for themselves over time.
The president’s $4 trillion fiscal budget would tap into offshore accounts and Wall Street transactions that only the very, very rich possess and thus care about. In addition to public works, which Obama has been calling for since his took office, increased revenues would be used for free community college and universal child care.
This, or something like it, is what serious people talk about if they are serious about combating inequality. Progressive redistribution, however bitter-tasting the phrase may be, must be on the table. But all we are likely to hear, especially from Republicans aiming high, are platitudes steeped in conservative morality, homilies to the power of private enterprise freed from the bonds of bureaucratic red tape, or the benefits of cutting taxes. Really. Anything. Anything at all to avoid tax hikes even on the treasonous few who hide their money offshore.
All one needs to do to see the difference between what Republicans are saying and Republicans are doing is look at the current session of Congress. The very first item on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s to-do list was passing a bill authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. That project would indeed create thousands of seasonal jobs but only about 40 permanent ones. It would have virtually no impact on the U.S. economy. Moreover, the public would get nothing in return, unless you count greater levels of global warming.
That’s not to mention other items being pushed having nothing to do with serving the greater good. A short list: House Republicans have introduced legislation to restrict abortion (the melodramatically titled “fetal-pain bill”), on dismantle part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and on starve to death the president’s modest executive action on illegal immigration.
Even if the Republicans really did believe, as Jeb Bush is trying to convince us, that addressing inequality is the right thing to do, don’t bet on any action. Doing the right thing had rarely been an incentive, because this is a party now committed to total warfare against Obama and the Democratic agenda. The only way the Republicans will take action on inequality is if they are forced to, but even then, they’ll likely do everything short of raising taxes on the very, very rich.
That’s why we should keep our eyes on minimum wage and paid sick leave. House Speaker John Boehner has said he’d rather kill himself than raise the minimum wage. Conservatives are poised to attack Republicans entertaining mandated sick days. But in terms of inequality, these are the easiest way to say you’ve done something without raising taxes on the very, very rich.
So yes, inequality is emerging as a major issue in the 2016 presidential race, and Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and others are going to try hard to convince us that the Republican Party cares, really cares, about the plight of the poor and an ever-shrinking middle class. But remember the last time a major candidate talked about such “compassionate conservatism.” By the end of his second term, the greatest beneficiaries of that compassion were the very, very rich.