Joe Conason: Economic inequality Obama's issue
So far, the Republican response to President Barack Obama's historic address on economic inequality has not veered from the predictable cliches 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," 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 inequality is a real problem. And there is no evidence 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 importantly, 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-wealthy 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 GOP 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 and 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.
Callous or not, they are certainly indifferent to the injuries of inequality. In a party consumed by right-wing ideology and market idolatry, the further enrichment of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else is a feature of capitalism, not a bug. Whenever they bray about "getting government out of the way," they mean removing the last defenses against that process.
With Pope Francis and Obama -- a pair of the world's most powerful voices -- warning against the dangers of social exclusion and excessive greed, we can expect to hear expressions of remorse, as well as rage, from all the usual right-wing suspects. But what we shouldn't expect is honesty. Republicans know worsening inequality disturbs the great majority of Americans, so they cannot confess that they aren't troubled at all.
Congress could begin to address the income gap, which conservative policies have exacerbated for three decades. Raising the minimum wage significantly would be a first step toward restoring fairness. Rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and school systems, rather than letting them continuously decay, would substantially raise employment and improve incomes. Removing obstacles to unionization would begin to level the gross disparities in economic power between the one percent and the rest of us.
Now the president has vowed to fight inequality for the rest of his days in office. He is taking that fight directly to the Republicans, who have frustrated so many of his initiatives. He will have to cast aside the last illusions of bipartisanship.
No matter what he says or does, he won't be able to win a higher minimum wage, serious jobs program or universal pre-school with the other party controlling Congress. But if he consistently challenges us -- and his adversaries -- to restore an American dream that includes everyone, he may yet fashion a legacy worthy of his transformative ambitions.
Joe Conason is a nationally syndicated columnist.