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Republicans No Longer "Pre-Occupied" with Deficits

October 31, 2011

As polling and media analyses revealed earlier this year, Republicans used the 2010 midterm campaign to completely turn the focus in Washington from job creation to deficit reduction. But now that the Occupy Wall Street movement is well into its second month, the GOP is changing its tune. We know this not only from recent Gallup polling which shows Republicans like Democrats and Independents now put unemployment and the economy at the top of their list of national concerns. As it turns out, Republicans are belatedly addressing - and lying about - America's record income inequality.

The public's demand for "jobs now, deficit reduction later" is finally being reflected in Republicans' attitudes about the most important issue facing the nation. In sharp contrast to its April survey showing Republicans (and independents) said the federal budget was near the top of their priority list, a September Gallup poll found a dramatic change. In the wake of renewed worries about the fragile recovery, the backlash against the GOP's debt ceiling brinksmanship and the nascent Occupy movement, Gallup discovered "Unemployment Re-Emerges as Most Important Problem in U.S." Even Republicans agree:

As it turns out, the Occupy Wall Street movement combined with the jaw-dropping finding from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) have shifted the focus to income inequality. While Republicans have blocked President Obama's wildly popular $447 billion American Jobs Act in order to preserve a tax cut windfall for the wealthy, a new poll from The Hill found that "Two-thirds of likely voters say the American middle class is shrinking, and 55 percent believe income inequality has become a big problem for the country." As Politico reported, that reality has led to "income inequality...working its way into the discourse of Republicans on Capitol Hill."
That fact that Republicans have decided to talk about income equality is a tribute to the power of one simple phrase in today's political culture -- and shows the GOP's concerns about distributing its own message during a time of economic upheaval. The Republican response, however, is to push an old message -- cutting taxes and regulations will boost small businesses and increase income for everyone, including those at the bottom of the economic scale.
That failed Republican policies - especially the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 - helped fuel the triumph of the 1% is completely lost in the GOP's charges of "class warfare", "sowing social unrest and class resentment" and "pitting Americans against each other." Absolutely, there's huge income inequality, and it started right here in Washington," said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas). "The way we fix that is getting the government out of the way of the private sector so we can put these people to work." As James Lankford (R-Okla.), a freshman on the Budget Committee brushed off the dramatic widening of the income gap over the past 30 years:

"There's not a single country or time period in history [when] there wasn't income inequality. If we're concerned with 'the wealthy have too much, let's tax them and give it away to those in poverty,' that's the wrong direction. The issue is how can we provide the maximum opportunity for everyone in America to succeed rather than to say, 'Let's take it away from the successful.' It's the balance between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome."

Of course, the House GOP leadership gave away the game in recent speeches. In a much-hyped speech at the Heritage Foundation last week, the budget-slashing Paul Ryan wrongly accused President Obama and the Democrats of pursuing "painful austerity, the kind you see in Europe" which would hinder social mobility. And an aide to Eric Cantor, who previously called the Occupy protesters "mobs," revealed his boss would use a speech on income inequality to explain "how we make sure the people at the top stay there."
That Republicans are even speaking to Americans' concerns about jobs and the growing income gap is a massive change. After all, just months ago, the GOP was focused like a laser-beam on the national debt, that hemorrhaging of red ink Republican policies were largely responsible for producing.
Sadly, the Republicans' selective amnesia must now rank among the greatest - and most successful - political double-standards in recent memory. Worse still, despite the ongoing economic crisis, until recently the Republicans largely succeeded in replacing the jobs deficit with the budget deficit as the nation's #1 priority.
The triumph of the GOP messaging machine was reflected in an April Washington Post/Pew Research poll. In just the four months since the Republican majority took control of the House, the percentage of Americans believing the budget deficit is a major problem which must be addressed now had catapulted from 70% to 81%. But even more revealing is that April Gallup survey (chart below, left) which showed the deficit (17%) rivaling the unemployment (19%) and the overall state of the economy (26%). And as the National Journal revealed in May (chart below, right), the shift from jobs to deficits in American political discourse is reflected in media coverage as well.

Given that Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt and George W. Bush doubled it again, the GOP's born-again debt crusade seemed more than a little hypocritical. After all, as Dick Cheney declared in 2002, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."
Not, that is, if a Republican is in the White House.
Now, after a year of successfully pinning the GOP's debt orgy on a Democratic president, the tables are turning on the GOP. The American people really are demanding jobs now and deficit reduction later. Even Republicans, it now seems, are finally getting the message.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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