Do you know the old joke about the politician who sees a mob of people marching down and street and cries: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so I can lead them!” I’m put in mind of it by the news that the Republican Party is super-keen now to figure out ways to help the middle class. The Democrats have begun embracing economic populism. Polls show strong public support for many of the ideas that make up this populism. The people are marching. And now the party that’s been the enemy of the middle class for 30 years wants to join—to lead!—the parade.
So they’re gathered right now, down in Cambridge, Md., in a posh Hyatt looking out on the broad Choptank River, a couple of miles as the crow flies from the Harriett Tubman Museum, figuring out how to do things for the middle class.
Let’s give them credit for this much. The typical Republican posture over the last 30 years has been: Let’s throw a party for the rich, toss a few crumbs to the middle class, and tell them we’re on their side because we’re cutting their taxes! “It’s your money!” as Dubya once put it. So the idea that they see the middle class as something other than a confederacy of dunces to bamboozle with fibs about tax cuts or to besot with cultural-war rhetoric is, one supposes, progress.
But the progress stops there for now. Marco Rubio’s now-famous idea about extending an existing federal tax credit to childless couples is fine as far as it goes, but since Rubio said that his proposals would be revenue-neutral, increasing the credit for childless couple by definition means decreasing the credit for child-full ones. And Paul Ryan has been talking about poverty for months, but we still await concrete proposals. Given the general tenor of his rhetoric about government and dependency, we can logically guess at what his concrete proposals will involve.
We sure know what they won’t involve: actual reasonably sufficient public investments in ideas that will make people’s lives better. The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb wrote an article about this new GOP emphasis Thursday, and he tried his best to convince us to take it all seriously until you got to this paragraph: “As they cast about for ideas, Republicans are struggling to find policies that match the simplicity and gut appeal of such Democratic proposals as raising the minimum wage without violating core conservative principles by increasing spending or interfering with market forces.”
That’s respectful newspaperese. Let’s put it more bluntly: They need to find ways to rope middle-class voters into believing they care without spending one FDR dime on them. Maybe, now that I think about it, this isn’t much less cynical than selling them massive tax cuts for the rich.
What policy ideas, what really obvious ones, would help most middle-class people greatly? It starts, I think, with family policies, by which I mean help for frazzled parents who both work full-time. Paid parental leave after a child is born. Yes, paid. Look at this absolutely staggering graphic. France, 112 days, 100 percent pay. Yeah, sure, it’s France. But 140 days, 100 percent pay in Russia? Russia?? The numbers for the United States, in case you don’t know, are 0 and 0. Also, state-sponsored and subsidized day care. As with paid leave, we’re not even close.
Even the Democrats don’t have the onions to propose this (they should; actually, Hillary Clinton should—that’s a future column). It’s not that they don’t believe in it. They’re just afraid to. Republicans? It’s not even in their solar system to consider such things. Their galaxy. If it’s going to cost anything, it’ll never get through their caucus.
So their measures are by definition going to constitute tinkering around the edges—a tax credit here, a...well, another tax credit there. Tax credits are about the long and short of it with Republicans and the middle class. And of course their cost has to be offset. Probably by cutting, again, into some program that helps the poor. Certainly not by raising taxes on the rich.
So here’s the recipe:
1. Give a lot of speeches about the middle class and about poverty; look sincere, sound sad, regretful when you talk about how big government has failed people.
2. Propose a few tax credits, and maybe a small symbolic actual expense of some kind.
3. Watch the press roll over and carry on excitedly about how this is a new GOP.
The third, of course, is the clincher. The press always wants to write that story, about how the Republicans are changing their stripes, becoming reasonable. I think this is because most straight, objective journalists are personally fairly liberal but feel guilty about being liberal so they’re itching to say something nice about the Republican Party because it serves the purpose of alleviating their liberal guilt. Paul Ryan cares, he really does! I’ve talked to his aides! They really know this stuff!
I know that at least one of them does actually know this stuff, but so what? When did knowing how the federal government works, how the budget works, become impressive for a policy wonk? It’s. Their. Job.
The Republicans do not have and will not have a single meaningful idea until they can start to replace the word “spending” in their policy vocabulary with the word “investment.” Because we don’t “spend” on the middle class. We invest in it. We invest—although alas not nearly enough—in educating its children, caring for its sick. The investments pay off. The dollars spent are nothing next to the dollars returned. Until Republicans can start thinking like that, they’re the same bad joke they’ve always been.