Economy

The GOP's Absurd, Hilarious Ploy to Pretend They Care About Poor People

New absurdities from Congress to the 2016 campaign trail.

Photo Credit: www.facebook.com/jebbush/photos

Across the GOP, there’s been an outbreak of claims by party leaders and presidential candidates that Republicans deserve credit for a slow but steady economic recovery, and that the GOP is the emerging champion of still-struggling working Americans.

Both of these assertions are brazen falsehoods. The first claim, by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is the latest effort to dilute the White House's achievements. The second—by likely 2016 candidates including Florida's ex-Gov. Jeb Bush—is another variety of political theft, all but plagiarizing Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA.

Republicans like McConnell seem to believe an unobservant public will buy GOP claims of credit for the nation's growing sense that the economy is recovering. They are betting people will not recall that in 2013 the GOP led the effort to undermine the government’s credit rating and forced a federal government shutdown that damaged the economy. That came after years of criticizing almost everything the Obama administration tried to do to shift economic policy, from bailing out Detroit automakers to implementing Obamacare.

"The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration's long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress," McConnell said, reciting his new script.

In 2016 presidential campaign circles, the GOP is also trying to co-opt populist Democratic language. Ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has created a super PAC, RightToRise, whose “what we believe” message mixes clichéd criticisms of economic policy and language that sounds very close to Warren's, whose speeches note that wealthy Americans have rigged the system against working people.    

“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,” Bush's website says. “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. We are not leading—at home or abroad.”

The suggestion that Jeb Bush—whose top achievements as Florida governor were cutting taxes, laying off state employees and backing charter schools—is a middle-class populist is not just a mirage, but is contradicted by his first moves to raise money for 2016. Bush has met with investment bankers and CEOs in their posh offices in New York and elsewhere, and his finance team wants to raise $100 million in the first quarter of 2015. If anything, Bush is trying to win the so-called wealth primary, just as his brother did in 1999, when George W. Bush locked down GOP donors and the 2000 Republican nomination.

“In 1999, then-Texas Governor Bush raised $37 million in the first half of the year and $29 million in the third quarter, breaking records and pressuring other contenders, such as Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, John Kasich, and Lamar Alexander, to end their campaigns swiftly or decide not to start one,” Bloomberg.com noted, recalling George W. Bush's 1999 campaign.

Jeb Bush’s efforts to portray himself as an economic populist—while lining up fundraising commitments from the fattest of the GOP’s fat cats—probably spells the end of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential ambitions, because Bush’s team wants to raise $25 million from donors in their shared home state.

This week, a new book written by Rubio that was intended to boost his national profile goes on sale. In American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone, Rubio tries to stake out the claim that the GOP offers the best hopes for America’s wage-stagnant working masses, reciting lines that typically have been Democratic talking points.    

“I look around and see the American Dream on life support,” he writes. “Seven years of government-centered, tax-and-spend liberalism have failed to lift the poor or sustain the middle class. Fewer Americans are working than at any time since Jimmy Carter was president. New business creation is 30 percent lower than it was in the 1980s. The stock market may be surging by the time you read this, but millions of everyday Americans will still be left behind by an economy that doesn’t value their skills and a government that would rather give a handout than a hand up.”

Other GOP presidential aspirants have been saying this as well, citing the nation's economic malaise before their party’s new congressional leadership shifted gears and decided it now wants some credit for the latest economic recovery statistics.

“Let me say from the outset, I will work with the President, Democrats, Independents and anyone else who wants to get people back to work and alleviate poverty in our country,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, said last year. “That said, we must first understand what caused the mass unemployment and poverty of the Great Recession. The housing bubble and subsequent crash were caused by the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates too low.”

The danger of all this blurred talk about who deserves credit for slightly better economic news, or who is the champion of the working  and middle classes, is that the truth is lost amidst the competing rhetoric. That’s not to say American voters can’t tell who is likely to be on their side, but it muddies what is a clear history and defining distinction between the parties.

After Obama won the 2012 presidential election, the Washington Post ran a lengthy analysis of the strategy that defeated Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee. It came down to using specific perceptions of how Americans viewed the GOP's economic priorities. When polled, most people said Romney didn’t understand “people like me,” because he was too wealthy. The Post wrote, “As one [Romney] adviser put it, ‘The issues that we really test well on and win on are not the war on poverty.'"

This week, however, Romney has begun telling his former advisors and 2012 fundraising team that he wants to run again in 2016. According to Politico.com, Romney said his top three issues would be helping the poor, supporting the middle class and supporting a more muscular foreign policy. “The economic focus has to be different as well,” one Romney advisor said. “There will be more focus on mobility and softer economic issues. There will also probably be more on upward mobility and opportunity.”

The latest federal Census statistics find that about 45 million Americans live at or below the poverty line, and the median household income—$52,000 in 2013—is 11 percent less than what it was in 2000, when adjusted for inflation. Figures like these underscore why politicans, especially Republicans, are increasingly talking like economic populists.

Whether the public will buy these assertions is another matter. Rubio has a life story with humbler roots, which gives him some credibility: his parents were Cuban immigrants. In contrast, the Bush family has been wealthy for generations, as Kevin Phillips has detailed in his book American Dynasty. And Romney, whose largest gaffe in 2012 was defending the top 1 percent, is a very wealthy man.

It’s not surprising that some of the nation’s most high-profile Republicans are positioning themselves as economic populists. In the political world, no good idea goes unstolen or claimed as one's own. But it is astounding that candidates like jeb Bush—whose team is trying to raise $100 million from the top 1 percent—claims he's running on behalf of ordinary working Americans.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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