Republicans change their sales pitch but the product remains the same
Republicans have a problem. For years they could shout down any attempt to point out the extent to which their policies favoured the elite over the poor and the middle class; all they had to do was yell “Class warfare!” and Democrats scurried away. In the 2012 election, however, that didn’t work: the picture of the GOP as the party of sneering plutocrats stuck, even as Democrats became more openly populist than they have been in decades.
As a result, prominent Republicans have begun acknowledging that their party needs to improve its image. But here’s the thing. Their proposals for a makeover all involve changing the sales pitch rather than the product. When it comes to substance, the GOP is more committed than ever to policies that take from most Americans and give to a wealthy handful.
Major rhetorical shift
Consider, as a case in point, how a widely reported recent speech by Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, compares with his actual policies. Jindal posed the problem in a way that would, I believe, have been unthinkable for a leading Republican even a year ago. “We must not,” he declared, “be the party that simply protects the well-off so they can keep their toys. We have to be the party that shows all Americans how they can thrive.” After a campaign in which Mitt Romney denounced any attempt to talk about class divisions as an “attack on success,” this represents a major rhetorical shift.
But Jindal didn’t offer any suggestions about how Republicans might demonstrate that they aren’t just about letting the rich keep their toys, other than claiming even more loudly that their policies are good for everyone. Meanwhile, back in Louisiana, Jindal is pushing a plan to eliminate the state’s income tax, which falls most heavily on the affluent, and make up for the lost revenue by raising sales taxes, which fall much more heavily on the poor and the middle class. The result would be big gains for the top 1 per cent, substantial losses for the bottom 60 per cent. Similar plans are being pushed by a number of other Republican governors.
Like the new acknowledgment that the perception of being the party of the rich is a problem, this represents a departure for the GOP – but in the opposite direction. In the past, Republicans would justify tax cuts for the rich either by claiming that they would pay for themselves or by claiming that they could make up for lost revenue by cutting wasteful spending. But what we’re seeing now is open, explicit reverse Robin Hoodism: taking from ordinary families and giving to the rich. That is, even as Republicans look for a way to sound more sympathetic and less extreme, their actual policies are taking another sharp right turn.