So far, the Republican response to President Obama’s historic address on economic inequality has not veered from the predictable clichés of Tea Party rhetoric. It was appropriately summarized in a tweet from House Speaker John Boehner, complaining that the Democrat in the White House wants “more government rather than more freedom” – and ignoring his challenge to Republicans to present solutions of their own.
But for Republicans to promote real remedies – the kind that would require more than 140 characters of text – they first would have to believe that inequality is a real problem. And there is no evidence that they do, despite fitful attempts by GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to display their “empathy” for the struggling, shrinking middle class.
Back when Occupy Wall Street briefly shook up the national conversation, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan both professed concern over the nation’s growing disparities of wealth and income. But their promises of proof that they care – and more important, of policy proposals to address what Cantor admits are “big challenges” – simply never materialized.
Meanwhile, working Americans learned what rich Republicans say in private about these sensitive topics when the “47 percent” video surfaced the following summer, in the final months of the 2012 presidential campaign. In Mitt Romney’s unguarded remarks to an audience of super-rich Florida financiers, the contempt for anyone who has benefited from public programs (other than banking bailouts) was palpable. Whether that sorry episode turned the election is arguable, but the Republican brand has never recovered – and the perception that Republicans like Romney and Ryan are hostile to the interests of working people remains indelible.
Of course, the House Republicans have done nothing to diminish that impression and everything to reinforce it. They have set about cutting food stamps, killing extended unemployment benefits, rejecting Medicaid expansion, as if competing in demonstrations of callous indifference. They complain about the lack of jobs – so long as they can blame Obama – but undermine every program designed to relieve the suffering of the jobless.