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01/21/2015 08:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Home-Field Advantage

Tom Williams via Getty Images

Because it is both playoff season in the football world and State Of The Union season in the political world, I felt it was high time to mix a metaphor or two. Because even though we're at the very earliest stage of the 2016 presidential race, it seems like the Democrats are pretty close to locking in "home-field advantage" on the subject of wages and inequality in America. By which I mean Democrats will be debating Republicans on very familiar territory for the Democratic Party, and very foreign soil for the Republicans. As in sports, this in no way guarantees a victory in "The Big Game," but it certainly does help the Democrats' chances.

While President Obama's "middle class economics" speech last night certainly laid down a few markers for Democrats in 2016 and beyond, the real reason it now seems Democrats will be playing on familiar turf comes from Republicans. There may be multiple reasons why there has been such a dramatic shift in Republican rhetoric in the past few weeks, but the shift is undeniably noticeable and drastic. One of the big reasons Republicans are now complaining about economic inequality is that Mitt Romney is thinking about making one last try, and he got burned so badly last time around because he kept saying laughably plutocratic and out-of-touch things on the campaign trail (the most memorable being his rant against the "47 percent," of course). Mitt at least seems halfway serious about mounting another bid for the White House now, and he's obviously talked to a few advisors about the image problem he had last time, so he's shaken his own personal Etch-A-Sketch and drawn a new picture of compassion for the poor and champion of the middle class. How well this will work is anyone's guess, really, since all things are possible in the political world. But that seems to be where the Republican trend started -- with Mitt re-inventing himself one more time.

There may be deeper reasons why other Republicans took up the cry, though. The Republican Party as a whole has become, in the public's eye, a party completely in line with Romney's former image. The GOP is seen as the party of Wall Street, not Main Street, in other words, and this has been increasingly true in the past decade or so. Fresh new Republican voices (and a few stale old ones as well) know that this will hurt the party over the long run, so they are looking for a way to reach out to middle class voters. The answer may even be simpler, though, because it may be a last-gasp effort at knee-jerkism. Since everything President Obama ever does is (of course) going to wind up in ruin, there is just no way that the economy could possibly be doing better now. Maybe it's not knee-jerkism, but head-in-the-sandism instead (can you even jerk your knee with your head in the sand?). In an effort to debunk all the positive economic numbers America is currently experiencing (Republican strategists figure), we'll seek out the bad news among the good, and highlight it. Wages aren't going up? Incomes are getting more unequal? Well, there you go -- that must be Obama's fault. They leap to this conclusion and then hastily prepare their talking points: Republicans will fix wage inequality!

By doing so, however, they are utterly ceding the home-field advantage to Democrats. At this early point, I don't even think many of them have realized the magnitude of this tactical political error, either. The reason I'm so confident in awarding the home field to Democrats is that they've been thinking about things like wages and inequality for decades now. All the way back to Ronald Reagan, at the very least. They have thought about various policy proposals to fix the problem (or at least ameliorate it a bit), and have a wide range of ideas to choose from. Obama made his choices from this long menu of possibilities and came up with the items in his speech last night: free community college, paid sick and maternity leave, guaranteed overtime pay for the middle class, a rise in the minimum wage, fair pay for women, tax credits for childcare and for working parents. He could easily have chosen eight or 10 other equally interesting ideas to make wage-earners' lives better, because the Democrats have so many possibilities waiting on the shelf.

What do Republicans have? Not much, and even that's being polite. "We'll give your boss a big tax cut; there will be trickling; then your life might get better." That's about it, really. Or, to give their core idea a slightly better spin: "Everyone will be rich one day if we give your boss a big tax cut." That "everyone will be rich one day" is actually not too far off the mark of how Republicans think they'll be able to sell more tax cuts for the wealthy, by dressing them up in wage-inequality language. If Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or any of the other contenders really want to go beyond this, they're going to have to create some policy ideas out of whole cloth, because such ideas just don't currently exist on the Republican shelf. Perhaps they'll surprise me and truly come up with some sort of original conservative policies to help working people, but at this point I consider that a pretty long shot. But the point is, whether bad or good, any such policy plan is going to have to be created from scratch.

Democrats, on the other hand, not only have a raft of ideas to choose from, they can even fine-tune their choice. Progressive and populist ideas run the gamut among Democrats, ranging from timid and incremental to massive and radical, and everything in between. They can even choose an idea on the scale of how effective it might be, or how wide the reach any new benefit will have.

One thing worth noting is that if this does come to pass and Republicans decide to run the 2016 race on a Democratic playing field, Democrats have (so far) been pretty good about picking ideas that are very easy to describe and also very easy to understand. Take free community college. That's three words. And no further explanation is really necessary to get the idea. You could quibble that it should really be stated as "free community college for all," but that's mere icing on the three-word cake. Now picture how Republicans are going to fight the idea. Explaining why free community college is a bad idea is going to quickly lead Republicans down a dead-end alley that Democrats usually find themselves trapped in -- off in the wonky weeds trying to explain with graphs and charts why their position is the only one to have, while their opponents just smile and repeat three words (perhaps followed up by: "It's the right thing to do," just for emphasis). Most of the new Obama proposals are similarly short and sweet: Paid sick leave. Paid maternity leave. Guaranteed overtime pay. This is a notable reversal from historic trends, where Republicans have run circles around Democrats in the "keep it simple, stupid" category, and it also gives Democrats an advantage, for now (perhaps "having the wind at your back while kicking a field goal on your home field"). Republicans could rally on this one, though, as they are the masters of this sort of thing, so this advantage may evaporate eventually -- but that would require Republicans to come up with their own proposals with equally snappy references.

Republicans were already at a disadvantage heading into 2016, since one of their core issues to whip up their base is about to fade away like the morning mists. It is hard to even calculate the political hay that has been successfully made by Republicans on the subject of gay marriage over the course of the past quarter-century. For more than two decades, it was a winning issue for them, guaranteed to turn out angry voters to the polls in droves.That all shifted under Republicans' feet, and after the Supreme Court rules this June, it will no longer be an effective political issue. Once the court has ruled, there is only one possible remedy, and that is a constitutional amendment. This is a complete impossibility, politically, because the public's attitude has changed so significantly so fast. Most Republican candidates will secretly breathe a sigh of relief when the court does rule, because they know that this will give them a free pass to stop talking about the issue, which is killing their chances of ever getting the youth of America to vote for them again. But gay marriage has been so central to the Republican culture wars that it's hard to see what could easily replace it. Another round of anti-flag-burning, perhaps?

Gay marriage in all 50 states will leave a big hole in the Republican campaign playbook. If they're serious about filling it with middle class policies and poverty-fighting, it's hard to see how they're going to square that circle with their pro-business, pro-wealthy conservatism. They'll be playing on the Democratic home field if they even seriously make the attempt. All Hillary Clinton (the expected Democratic nominee) will have to do is start vocally supporting whichever of the president's ideas she likes, or perhaps proposing a few of her own to show some "distance" from him. Whether she chooses from Obama's ideas or Elizabeth Warren's ideas or anyone else's, a wealth of proposals are there for the picking. Republicans are going to have to work hard to even create their own ideas in this realm.

Obama gave a rousing speech last night (I posted my own snap reactions to it on my site, if you're interested). He called for a middle class agenda that pretty much any Democrat could get behind, at least in part. It was very easy for him to do so, since there were so many good ideas to choose from. Republicans have a lot of catching up to do in this regard, if they really want to enter the debate over wage inequality in any sort of serious way. But even if they do come up with a plan, they'll be playing on their opponent's home field on the subject, throughout the entire election.

 

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