The American middle class didn't get much love over the weekend at the Iowa Freedom Summit — at least not directly. The event was the Republican presidential race's de facto kickoff. And if the C-SPAN transcribers got it right, all those potential 2016ers only used the phrase "middle class" nine times during the nine-hour affair. The number gets even lower when you note that Sarah Palin — more performer than serious pol these days — accounted for three of the nine mentions. And it's not a question of language: "Middle income" workers got one measly shout-out, from Chris Christie.
The paucity of "middle" mentions is bizarre. The story of this anemic economic recovery — and really of the entire 2000s — is how poorly America's broad middle has done. Countless news stories and research reports have highlighted the middle class' financial struggles. Clearly, Democrats have gone long on "middle class" for 2016. In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama coined a new term for his policy agenda: "middle-class economics." And the Center for American Progress, the "ready for Hillary" think tank, recently produced a lengthy report devoted to solutions for middle-class woes.
But weirdly, much of the GOP is reluctant to explicitly target the middle, either with rhetoric or ideas. It's not necessarily that Republicans don't care about the 99 percent. They just think their way is better than the Democrats' way, even if it's less obviously and directly helpful to the middle class. This is the party that believes "a rising tide lifts all boats," that faster economic growth is the best path to shared prosperity. To concede otherwise is to challenge one of the modern party's first principles. Moreover, many think mentioning the "middle class" by name — much less pushing policies to directly help it — smacks of "class warfare" and uses the language of Karl Marx. As Rick Santorum, one GOPer who has actually focused on the middle, has put it, "since when in America do we have classes? Since when in America are people stuck in areas or defined places called a class? That's Marxism talk."
I also hear this a lot: "President Reagan didn't mention the 'middle class,' and he won two landslide elections." That's a valid point, as far as it goes. I looked at seven major Reagan speeches from his 1980 presidential campaign and early presidency and found not one mention of the "middle class" (and just one of "middle-income people.") Then again, the heart of Reaganomics was a giant, across-the-board income tax cut. All income tax rates were cut, and no longer would inflation be allowed to nudge middle-income workers into higher and higher tax brackets. In politics, cash money means never having to say I love you.
But what is the modern GOP offering during a time when a rising tide is leaving too many Americans stuck and stranded? The party's desire to cut business taxes at a time of record corporate profits probably seems off point to many voters (even though workers bear at least a portion of the corporate tax burden.) And cutting the personal income tax rate — even if it boosts GDP growth — won't immediately help the nearly half of Americans who don't pay those taxes.
Of course, the GOP could try to reframe its existing agenda as pro-middle by, you know, just saying it is. Check out this recent Karl Rove op-ed in The Wall Street Journal: "Most important, Republicans should fill the policy vacuum left by Mr. Obama's dead-on-arrival package with a robust, pro-growth reform agenda that focuses on the middle class — one that simplifies the tax code, rolls back onerous regulations, further expands domestic energy production, restrains spending, controls the debt, increases trade, and modernizes entitlements." And that's different than the 2012 Romney agenda how exactly?
Call them what you want: the middle class, middle incomers, working Americans. Maybe GOP wordsmith Frank Luntz can cook up a new phrase. What's more important is for Republicans to recognize (a) upward economic mobility is stalled and the economic gains we do have are going almost exclusively to the top, (b) key forces behind this trend — automation, globalization — aren't going away, and (c) boosting economic growth is necessary but perhaps not sufficient for broadly shared prosperity. Whether it's tax relief for Americans even if they only pay payroll taxes, improving college affordability, or pro-consumer universal health care, the GOP has both political and policy reasons to acknowledge America's struggling you-know-who.