Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Gee, listen to the GOP playing the 'class warfare' card

In his announcement speech Monday, Jeb Bush took the time to acknowledge the ongoing economic struggles of "hard-working men and women who don’t need reminding that the economy is more than the stock market," which has been soaring to new heights while many families "haven’t gotten a raise in 15 years."

You find a similar populist message at his "Right to Rise" SuperPAC:

"Millions of our fellow citizens across the broad middle class feel as if the American Dream is now out of their reach; that our politics are petty and broken; that opportunities are elusive; and that the playing field is no longer fair or level. Too many of the poor have lost hope that a path to a better life is within their grasp. While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America."

Until recently, anybody employing rhetoric of that sort would have been attacked by Republicans for indulging in class warfare and the politics of resentment. And it's not just Bush. Marco Rubio acknowledges that "the country's going through an extraordinary economic transformation that is leaving many people insecure," concluding that our identity as the land of opportunity is in question. Even Ted Cruz has been heard complaining that "Today the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our national income than any year since 1928."

The question then becomes: What do they propose to do about it? If we are indeed in the midst of "an extraordinary economic transformation," as Rubio frames it -- and all the evidence suggests that he is correct -- what new policies do they propose to address it? What 21st century policies can address these 21st century challenges?

And there's the rub. The economic reality has changed, the rhetoric has begun to change, but the policies proposed by the GOP remain what they have been for 50 years or more. Has technology devalued the labor of millions of Americans? We need to cut regulation and reduce taxes, especially for the wealthy. Has global trade concentrated earning power in fewer and fewer hands? Cut regulation and reduce taxes, especially for the wealthy.

I don't think that approach makes sense. I don't think it's enough to pay mere lip service to the idea of a fundamental transformation shaking the economic security of Americans to the core, and then respond with the exact same agenda proposed by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Take what has happened to manufacturing, long the core of the American middle class and often the source of retirement benefits and health insurance for tens of millions. The common perception is that our industrial sector has been hollowed out by overseas competition, but it's not true. Manufacturing output adjusted for inflation is higher than it has ever been:

However, even as output soared, technology and other factors have dramatically reduced the number of Americans needed to produce those goods:

That's Rubio's "extraordinary economic transformation," captured in two charts. Also, note that the decline in manufacturing jobs accelerated through the 2000s, a period in which the GOP economic nostrums of lower taxes and regulation were applied with a vengeance. I'm not arguing that the downward trend was caused by those policies -- its sources are far more fundamental -- but clearly, those policies did nothing to reverse or address it.

And no, I don't know what the answers will be. In general, though, if the economy is making things harder and harder on American workers and their families, I don't think the answer is for government to make it harder still by stripping health insurance from millions, cutting Social Security, Medicaid, student loans, etc.

And if those at the top are already doing extraordinarily well, with more than enough capital accumulated to invest if they choose, I don't understand the GOP insistence that government must add further to their advantages.

But that seems to be the message still. Even now, in 2015, Republicans want to reduce or eliminate corporate income taxes. They also want to reduce or eliminate taxes on investment income and capital gains, so that the Mitt Romneys of the world would literally pay NO income taxes at all.

To which Wall Street says yes please, thank you very much. Ka-ching.

Republican candidates for the 2016 nomination also want to repeal or greatly weaken the Dodd-Frank banking regulations that were put into place after the 2008 banking collapse to discourage risky investments that might force another taxpayer bailout. They also want to weaken and if possible kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established to try to at least somewhat level the field between consumers and predatory financial firms.

To which Wall Street says yes please, thank you very much. Ka-ching.

Congressional Republicans are also trying to cut the budget of the IRS, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other watchdog agencies. To which Wall Street once again says yes please, thank you very much. Ka-ching.

In short, I'm not sure where the Republican Party seems to be going with this newly populist rhetoric. It seems to be taking them right back to where they started.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.