Thomas Edsall and Ramesh Ponnuru on the Politics of Inequality

While reading Ross Douthat’s excellent Campaign Stops post on the rise of Ron Paul and its implications on the Republican field, I noticed another post, by Thomas Edsall, on the politics of inequality

Part of Edsall’s argument is that it is dangerous for Republicans to embrace Paul Ryan’s strategy for reforming the safety net, and he cites a CBPP analysis of the Ryan roadmap as evidence. Yet strangely, Edsall also quotes the following from a recent Ryan speech without comment:

Rather than raising taxes and making it more difficult for Americans to become wealthy, let’s lower the amount of government spending the wealthy now receive. The President likes to use Warren Buffett and his secretary as an example of why we should raise taxes on the rich. Well, Warren Buffett gets the same health and retirement benefits from the government as his secretary, but our proposals to modestly income-adjust Social Security and Medicare benefits have been met with sheer demagoguery by leading members of the president’s party. [Emphasis added]

After sharing the passage above, Edsall writes:

The issue of inequality is inherently dangerous for Republicans who are viewed by many as the party of the upper class.

An Oct. 19-24 CBS/New York Times poll asked respondents whether the policies of the Obama administration and the policies of Republicans in Congress favor the rich, the middle class, the poor or treat everyone equally. Just 12 percent said Obama favors the rich, while 69 percent said Republicans in Congress favor the rich.

But wait a second. Are poll respondents associated the Republican view with Ryan’s call for stripping the rich and only the rich of various government benefits? Edsall gives us no indication of whether this might prove an effective strategy for countering perceptions of the Republican agenda that are rooted in conservative attitudes regarding tax policy. 

Moreover, Edsall explicitly states that Mitt Romney is trying to make support for the Roadmap “a new conservative litmus test.” The trouble is that Ryan himself has been open to proposals that are more “moderate” than the Roadmap, e.g., the Rivlin-Domenici Medicare plan. Romney has offered his own proposal that is more “moderate” than the Roadmap, in that it preserves a defined benefit. His criticism of Gingrich is, as I understand it, rooted in concerns regarding Gingrich’s temperament. 

The premise of Edsall’s post is that “the issue of inequality is inherently dangerous for Republicans,” which may well be true. As Ramesh Ponnuru observes, however, it is not clear that “the issue of inequality” is as potent as is commonly understood in elite newsrooms:

There’s no need for Republicans to be defensive about this subject. Although inequality has long been a major concern of liberals, most voters don’t seem to share it.

When the National Opinion Research Center asked people whether they believed the government has a responsibility “to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes,” in 2008, only 37 percent agreed. Forty-three percent disagreed, and 20 percent had no opinion. When pollsters ask people to name the top issue facing the country, almost nobody volunteers inequality, notes Karlyn Bowman, an opinion-research analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “I’ve literally never seen it cross the 1 percent threshold,” she says.

But if voters don’t especially care about how much money the rich are making, they do care about how much they themselves are making. A return to robust economic growth and rising middle-income wages doesn’t require reversing a decades-long trend toward higher inequality. It requires improvements to our monetary, tax and health-care policies. Instead of talking about inequality — even to rebut Obama’s dubious claims — Republicans should talk about what voters care about, while pointing out that the president would rather chase ideological will-o’-the-wisps.

Not everyone will embrace Ramesh’s analysis. Many will continue to insist that the concerns over the distribution of positional goods in dense high-cost, high-wage urban communities are in fact universal. This may well be true. I tend to doubt it.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...