THE BLOG

Republican Rhetoric vs Reality

02/11/2015 08:05 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015
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Americans are rightly frustrated that Congress has been unable to come together to address our country's greatest challenges: on stagnant middle-class incomes, income inequality, and a host of other issues. One of the principal reasons for the gridlock has been that Republicans and Democrats have not agreed even on what problems are the most important to tackle.

Democrats have long argued that ever-growing costs and the stagnation of wages have created a harsh squeeze on the middle class, and we have made that concern the lodestar of our policy agenda. Now, after several years during which Republicans have been blind to these concerns, they have finally started to appropriate Democratic rhetoric about stalled middle-class incomes.

In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner said one of their primary goals was to "help struggling middle-class Americans who are clearly frustrated by an increasing lack of opportunity [and] stagnations of wages..." Sen. Ted Cruz, in his response to the State of Union, also highlighted the problem of listless middle-class incomes. Sen. Marco Rubio made middle-class economic struggles the premise of his recently released book. Their rhetoric makes them sound like they are Democrats.

Mitt Romney, in testing the ultimately tepid waters for another presidential run with a speech at the RNC winter meeting, encapsulated this stunning shift in Republican messaging. As a Presidential candidate he claimed he was "severely conservative" and wrote-off 47% of Americans as lacking in responsibility, dependent on the government. Now, Romney is talking about the "human tragedy" of middle-class families who "want to see rising wages." A recent Washington Post headline that read, "Romney highlights poverty, world affairs as possible 2016 themes" caused many to do a double-take, including myself.

Despite the evolution in rhetoric, however, the question remains: does this abrupt U-turn represent an actual substantive shift in priorities of our Republican colleagues, or a cynical - and hypocritical - ploy for votes?

Looking at the new Congress so far, we can only conclude that Republicans' change in tone is only tongue-deep. Yes, Republicans are starting to sound more like Democrats on the economy, but unfortunately it does not pass the smell test because Republicans have not embraced any new policies to match their new messaging strategy.

Senate Republicans have made their number one "jobs issue" the approval of the Keystone Pipeline, which will create only 35 permanent jobs, while transporting dirty tar-sands oil across America's heartland for the benefit of a single Canadian oil company. For most of their time thus far this Congress, the Republican majority has been busy negotiating a new abortion ban and has been holding Department of Homeland Security funding hostage over their hard-right demands on immigration reform.

We should not be surprised that the new Republican tone is all sizzle and no steak. The truth is, on issues like wage stagnation and middle-class economics, Republicans are playing on Democratic turf, because while Republicans have not developed a policy agenda to offer real relief to the middle class, Democrats have a litany of policy solutions ready to offer the American people.

Democrats want to raise the federal minimum wage and lower the cost of tuition. The President was right to think boldly in proposing the goal of free community college. Democrats want to expand tax credits for child care, extend paid sick and family leave, and encourage companies to move jobs back to the U.S. rather than shipping them overseas. The fact that Republicans are playing on our turf gives Democrats the political upper hand as we approach 2016.

Democrats are encouraged to hear Republicans co-opting our rhetoric on the economy and we stand at the ready to work with Republicans to get things done for the middle class. But only when Republican policy proposals catch up to their rhetoric will we have an opportunity for real solutions. Until then, the middle class will never believe that these new Republican talking points are anything but window dressing.