Why Media Shouldn't Take GOP Attempts To Rebrand As Champions Of The Middle Class At Face Value


Early news coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign has tacitly allowed the GOP to disingenuously rebrand itself as a party of the middle class, despite the fact that the party's new rhetoric doesn't align with its policy positions that continue to exacerbate income inequality. When highlighting Republican rhetoric about the need to reduce income inequality, media should take care to hold the GOP accountable for its actions, not just its words.

Recent Gallup polling shows “two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S.,” and Republicans have taken note. Prospective GOP presidential candidates have suddenly started talking about income inequality ahead of the 2016 elections, apparently heeding advice from the Republican National Committee's (RNC) post-mortem of the 2012 election, which warned that the GOP had been “increasingly marginalizing itself” and urged the party to improve its optics by recognizing the fact “that the middle class has struggled mightily and that far too many of our citizens live in poverty.” 

During the January 25 Koch brothers-sponsored Freedom Partners Forum, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (TX), Rand Paul (KY), and Marco Rubio (FL) each took the opportunity to bemoan income inequality and blame the Obama administration for a growing income gap. Mitt Romney claimed that “income inequality had worsened” during President Obama's time in office in a January 28 speech at Mississippi State University, while Jeb Bush's “Right to Rise” PAC has declared that “the income gap is real.”

The Washington PostPoliticoUSA Today, and Bloomberg Politics each reported on the 2016 hopefuls' Freedom Partners comments, highlighting the senators' statements lamenting income inequality and focusing on “issues such as the minimum wage ... [and] tax reform.” The Wall Street Journal featured Republican policy proposals “aimed at boosting the middle class,” and applauded Bush, Romney, Rubio, and Paul for “promoting or seeking ideas for shoring up the middle class.” The Post's Post Politics blog and NBCNews.com's  "First Read" emphasized Romney's recent focus on income inequality and poverty, pointing to speeches at the RNC and Mississippi State University.

These media outlets acknowledged the fact that Republicans are changing their rhetoric on inequality -- but it's actions and policies that count, not just rhetoric. Media cannot take GOP candidates at their word when their policies continue to exacerbate inequality and burden the middle and lower class.

Cruz, Paul, and Rubio all oppose recent calls to raise the minimum wage. At a January 25 private donor event, each of these senators argued that raising the minimum wage would eliminate jobs. Cruz claimed “the minimum wage consistently hurts the most vulnerable,” while Rubio called focus on raising the minimum wage “a waste of time.” During the same event, none of the senators “said they could stomach any tax increases," and Rubio called the ACA a “perfect example” of “cronyism,” blaming health reform for halting job creation. Just this month, Cruz introduced a bill to repeal the health care law, while Paul echoed calls to repeal and suggested instead to “try freedom for a while.” Such positions are consistent with the GOP's historic stances on these issues. As MSNBC's Steve Benen noted, supposed Republican attempts to address income inequality, “in practice, ... apparently mean[] endorsing an agenda that cuts off unemployment benefits, slashes food stamps, cuts funding for public services, eliminates health care benefits, and rejects minimum wage increases.”  

Economists have often noted that wage stagnation has a profound impact on aggravating income inequality, and as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has pointed out, raising the federal minimum wage just to $10.10 per hour by 2016 would “raise the wages of 27.8 million workers.” The Congressional Budget Office has also reported on the "ripple effect" of raising the minimum wage, saying it would benefit 16.5 million workers and lift nearly one million people out of poverty. And according to a Center For American Progress report, a $10.10 minimum wage would cut food stamp participation and taxpayer expenditures by $4.6 billion annually. Support for anti-poverty government programs -- like SNAP, unemployment benefits, school lunch programs, and the like -- cut the country's poverty rate “nearly in half,” according to research from the Institute for Research on Poverty.

Rather than alleviating income inequality, lawmakers have worsened inequality by consistently cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans, according to a 2013 EPI study. Economist Larry Summers has emphasized the importance of “closing [tax] loopholes that only the wealthy can enjoy,” noting that would “enable targeted tax measures such as the earned-income tax credit to raise the incomes of the poor and middle class more than dollar for dollar by incentivizing working and saving.”

And despite countless Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health care law will reduce income inequality, boost the incomes of lower and middle-class Americans, and extend coverage to 15.1 million uninsured adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Media acknowledging the GOP's new talking points and mottos is one thing. But given the 2016 hopefuls' apparent commitment to policies that stand in contrast to their rhetoric on income inequality, media should make sure and hold these Republicans accountable for their actions, not just their words.