While Bernie Sanders is justly credited with turning the media and political spotlight on the problem of income inequality, conservatives have, indirectly, taken their seats at the table to open discussions on finding common ground with their more liberal counterparts. The clearest indicator is the near-identical proposals on expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit from President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Expanding the EITC is one of several solutions recommended for addressing income inequality. Admittedly, Speaker’s Ryan’s proposal, released in July, is in response to the persistence of poverty in the country, not income inequality, but it is a first step in the right direction.
This moment had been building for at least two years, since then-Representative Ryan publicly acknowledged that the GOP had to start offering solutions rather than declaring what the Party opposed, the implication being that the days of just saying no to Democratic initiatives had to end if the Party wanted to continue to win elections. Shortly after Ryan became Speaker of the House, he was asked what he had to do to make sure that Congress became a respected institution again. His response was fairly blunt, “Stand for something. Do something. Offer solutions.”
The same message has been stated more bluntly over the last several years by Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), whose latest op-ed, entitled “Note to Republicans: Obstructionism Backfired”, appeared in the print edition of the Washington Post on September 3. In this piece, Ornstein acknowledges that GOP leaders took a position of opposition to any of President Obama’s initiatives on the very night of his inauguration in 2009. Despite the mid-term gains in congressional elections that resulted from this policy, Ornstein believes the real problems facing the nation can no longer be ignored.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling, and the cost of replacing aging water and sewer systems once they collapse will be sharply greater than acting now,” he wrote. After reciting other infrastructure elements in need of attention, he made the shocking statement that “The Affordable Care Act needs the technical corrections that every other major social policy received after its passage, and some adjustments, including conservative and market-driven ones, to make it work better.” Unlike conservatives up to this point, who typically and loudly have recommended trashing the ACA altogether, Ornstein is saying it’s time to work together.
AEI seems determined to get out in front on this message of common ground and solving problems. Earlier this year, AEI President Arthur Brooks delivered a TED presentation in which he expressed his concerns about political polarization and the innovations that can come from the competition among differing ideologies.
Lest we get too rosy-eyed about a kumbaya of future negotiations on this issue, recent commentary in the Daily Signal, the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation, offered three strategies for talking to liberals about income inequality that included the following statements:
“Most important is to expose the myth that the pie is only so large and the rich get rich at the expense of the poor.”
“…use examples that show government interference is causing the poor to stay poor…”
If conservatives like Ryan and Brooks agree that exposing the myth expressed in that first statement is vital to their cause, negotiations will quickly go no where. As for the second statement, liberals may have to swallow a bit and acknowledge some truth regarding the role of government, but so too must the conservatives recognize that the poor were poor and stayed poor long before the government stepped in with any solutions, flawed though they may be.
Regardless, the gauntlet has been thrown. It will now be up to both liberals and conservatives to agree on how committed they wish to be on making progress towards real solutions to the many problems that confront us. Let’s all hope they will rise to the challenge.