It is not clear where the decision is made - in David Axelrod's Chicago apartment, in the editorial room of the New York Times, in the Harvard faculty lounge, or at a George Soros-funded think tank, but it has definitely been decided. It has made its way into the State of the Union; it is undoubtedly on some liberal ListServ telling journalists what to write about; the chairman of the Federal Reserve is bemoaning it; it is in United Nations speeches; the Pope is talking about it. The problem with America is that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the middle class who are getting poorer, and we need a compassionate Democratic president to protect the middle class from the heartless Republicans.
What we have seen thus far is the set-up. The "woe is me". The fervor intensified in 2014 with French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century which showed increasing concentration of wealth with globalization and technology; with the NPR data which show that over the past few decades the top 5% in the United States have done fine, but the 95% are under water; with the Huffington Post article about income inequality feeding a disparity of money in politics; with the editorial by Robert Reich about how much better Democratic presidents have been.
The policy prescriptions, in the words of Elizabeth Warren, Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and the Occupy Wall Street crowd, as well as Barack Obama's political posturing during his waning presidency: higher income taxes; higher capital gains taxes; higher minimum wages; free pre-school and community college; defense of free or heavily subsidized health care. Only the welfare state can save the people.
That sells pretty well out here in San Francisco, the "City of Saint Francis", but it misses a big point: What is best for a great majority of Americans is a system which encourages work and job creation.
The January 28 Wall Street Journal did a masterful job of outlining the relationship between extended unemployment benefits during the recent recession and the heightened unemployment rate. At the peak of the recession federal subsidies extended state unemployment programs to cover about two years and extended them long after the recession ended. At the end of 2013 the Republican Congress stopped the subsidy, returning the limit to 26 weeks amid Democratic howls about an economic drag, the loss of 240,000 jobs, and a renewed recession. So what happened in 2014? Job creation averaged 246,000 per month, and the official unemployment rate dropped from 6.7% to 5.6%. What's more, since benefits vary by state and regions within states, it was possible to demonstrate that those who had had the highest benefits showed the greatest improvement in job creation when the punchbowl was taken away.
So, beyond just seeming to be empathetic, how should Republicans talk about economic policy?
1. At it's simplest, Republican ideology is about what immigrants have always come here for: liberty (political; religious) and opportunity (economic; societal) with personal responsibility. When you substitute government authority for personal responsibility you diminish liberty and opportunity.
2. The thrust of Democratic policies is redistribution and programs to lessen the suffering of the poor. Under Barack Obama we have 47 million people receiving food stamps, 10 million people receiving Social Security disability payments, and 37% of working-age adults opting out of the job market. It should not be viewed as harsh to argue that the solution to poverty is employment, supported by programs which develop 21st Century skills while encouraging potential workers to work and potential employers to employ.
3. For the truly needy, conservatives have a demonstrably better record of demonstrating compassion. As Arthur Brooks thoroughly documented in "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism", conservatives donate more money and time to charity than do liberals. There is a high correlation to religious conviction, but there is also a preference for personal over governmental responsibility for the needy. Conservatives do not need to apologize.
4. The Republican Party is really the party of the middle class. Looking at the 2012 election results, Barack Obama carried voters earning less than $30,000 per year and over $100,000. He carried voters with less than a high school education or an advanced degree. Mitt Romney carried the middle in both education and in income.
In politics, tone is often more important than substance. Republicans will have the disadvantage of a cacophony of voices - some of whom will say stupid things - while the Democrats will most likely have only one real spokesperson. Doubtless, the media will relish Republican voices which play into the "heartless" imagery and there will be many proposals designed to place Hillary as the champion of the little people - despite her extensive connections to Wall Street and the Clinton Foundation donor network. The theme has been determined - she will make it fit.
It will do well for Republican candidates - and individual supporters - to truly understand and keep repeating that they are the advocates of liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility; that the best cure for poverty is a job; that conservatives demonstrate more compassion in their personal lives; and that the middle class votes Republican. The truth will make you free.
bill bowen - 1/30/15