Remember the “47 percent”?
During his 2012 campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney was caught on tape describing nearly half the country in disparaging terms, labeling them moochers who want handouts. They are voters “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” he said.
Romney’s remarks — and he stood by them immediately after his election defeat — didn’t just damage him; they also sullied the entire Republican Party, reinforcing its image as the lapdog of the very rich. Even now, as some of its strategists push hard for the GOP to reach out to ordinary working folks, its congressional leaders continue to protect the 1 percent.
If President Obama has no hope for passage of his ambitious program of “middle-class economics,” as he called it during last week’s State of the Union speech, at least he has a plan. His proposals for free community college, increasing the minimum wage and providing tax cuts to families in the middle of the economic spectrum have the advantage of recognizing the reality of income inequality.
So far, his GOP critics continue to resist that reality, sticking to the old Reagan-era bromide that a “rising tide lifts all boats.” Perhaps that’s true, but those middle-class rowboats are taking on water even as the rich float along comfortably in their yachts.
The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots is one of the most critical issues of our time, a dispiriting trend that has struck most Western economies. Because of complex forces, especially globalization and technology, the incomes of ordinary workers are falling further and further behind, even as the rich get, well, richer.
That’s not the fault of Democrats or Republicans, Libertarians or Socialists. Nor did this growing inequality start with the Great Recession. It started way back in the 1970s, as the factories that had powered the middle class started to shut down. American steel mills closed; textile mills went away; automotive plants moved out. The trends have simply accelerated since then, as robots power assembly lines and low-wage workers in places like Bangladesh sew garments once made in Maine and North Carolina.
Even now, in a resurgent economy, many families haven’t regained their footing. Their savings accounts have evaporated. They can’t replace the house they lost to foreclosure. They work two or three part-time jobs without benefits. And even those with full-time jobs aren’t living it up. According to The New York Times, the median weekly wage for full-time workers at the end of 2014 was $796, below the levels in 2009, when the expansion began.
Those workers are hardly moochers. They are struggling to find their way in a world where their skills have less value. They need help from a government that knows its role is to lend a hand, to steady the ladder, to help them find a toehold.
Even Romney, who is making noises about running again, has finally gotten the message. He has at least called for an increase in the minimum wage.
But most Republicans can’t get over the notion that those who haven’t made it simply aren’t trying hard enough, that if you’re stuck on the economic margins, it’s your own fault. Their allegiance to the very rich — people like the billionaire Koch brothers — overrides any concern for the vast middle.
Take their insistence on resisting tax increases for the 1 percent — a plan proposed by Obama to pay for tax cuts for the middle and working classes. Republicans claim any tax hikes would kill the recovery. But that’s not so. George W. Bush’s tax cuts led to no new job growth, while Bill Clinton, who raised taxes, presided over a period of widespread prosperity.
So what do Republicans propose? So far, they’ve pushed building the Keystone pipeline, which would create about 42,000 jobs over a period of two years, but only about 35 permanent jobs. And, of course, the GOP still wants to kill Obamacare, a strategy that would create zero jobs.
That’s not much better than dismissing the 47 percent.
Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: monkeyz_uncle via Flickr