What Change Sounds Like
When he opened the 114th Congress, House Speaker John Boehner declared that “too many are working harder only to lose ground to stagnant wages and rising costs.”
Jeb Bush called the fundraising arm of his presidential exploration “The Right to Rise PAC,” a nice play on words emphasizing his hope for a conservative revival and his promise to put forward ideas that would help “all Americans to rise up” and “to move up the income ladder.”
Mitt Romney, of all people, told a Republican National Committee gathering on Friday night that “under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer” even as “income inequality has gotten worse.” Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has published a new book called “American Dreams” proposing to fight what he calls “opportunity inequality.”
The skeptic might write off such pronouncements as a tribute to the miracles that focus groups and polling can call forth. Republicans are well aware that wage stagnation is likely to be a central — perhaps the central — issue of the next campaign. And since the economic recovery is now so strong that the GOP can no longer complain that President Obama failed to bring the economy back to health, Republicans need to focus their criticisms elsewhere.
There are many reasons for skepticism, not the least being that improving middle-class living standards doesn’t even seem to rank with the Republicans’ obsessions: wrecking Obamacare, blocking the president’s executive actions on immigration and repealing Wall Street reform. And Republicans showed no enthusiasm over the weekend for the genuinely redistributive tax proposals the White House said the president would put forward in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. But this does not mean that the new rhetoric on the right is without significance.
On the contrary, a truly revealing leading indicator in politics is the moment when those on one side of the political debate are forced to talk about the problems that the other side sees as most pressing. Doing so inevitably reinforces their opponents’ worldview and suggests a retreat from their own ideology.
The last time this happened in a big way involved the response of many Democrats to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter. For years afterward, they regularly fell all over themselves to sound Republican, peppering their speeches with praise for “markets” and “entrepreneurship.” Social spending became “investments in human capital.”
In his 1984 book on the era, “The Neoliberals,” Randall Rothenberg pointed to one of the key slogans of the revisionist Democrats who were arguing that the party needed to reach beyond the ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties.”
Of a sudden, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say, at least some conservatives are recasting that line to acknowledge that the solutions of the 1980s will not solve the problems of the second decade of the 21st century — meaning that there are voices on the right (among them David Frum, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam and my Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson) making the case for moving beyond Ronald Reagan.
Admitting that it is neither the ’80s nor the ’90s anymore is the first step toward backing away from the Reagan-Thatcher view of economics that has been surprisingly durable for 35 years: that markets need little regulation, that social programs are overrated or even harmful, and that taxes should always be kept as low as possible.
How much have things changed? Last week, I was part of a group organized by the Center for American Progress that issued a report on how to promote inclusive prosperity. Most striking to all of us was just how much the economy has been transformed by globalization, technological change, shifts in employment relationships, the decline of worker bargaining power, the rise of “short-termism” in corporate behavior, and the shift toward a less progressive tax system.
The report included concrete suggestions for how to lift the wages and living standards of those left behind involving substantial but hardly radical public interventions. Many have worked in countries similar to ours. What’s clear is that if we keep relying on the answers of the 1980s, expecting remedies based on a hands-off government to improve things, we are destined for disappointment.
So far, the proposals coming from the right (such as Rubio’s changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit) are inadequate to the task at hand. Much of the current conservative program, including killing the Affordable Care Act and enacting more tax cuts for the wealthy, would actually make things worse.
Nonetheless, the rumblings you are hearing from the right are the sounds of an old consensus in the process of disintegrating. For those who want to deal with today’s problems, it’s a promising sound.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected]. Twitter: @EJDionne.
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