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
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
Jan. 9, 2014, midnight

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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