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Republicans Are Making the Same Mistakes Today That Democrats Made Last Decade

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

There probably aren’t many lessons to be learned about the politics of income inequality by studying the fight over reproductive rights, but Republicans would be wise to learn this one.

Last week, just as anti-abortion activists descended on Washington for an annual pro-life march, House GOP leaders nixed a vote on legislation, aimed at that very constituency, to ban abortions in most cases after 20 weeks. This reversal didn’t reveal a sudden pro-choice turn within the Republican Party ranks, though religious conservatives were furious. It reflected a realization, on the part of Republican congresswomen, that conditioning a rape exception to the abortion ban on the victim filing a police report would backfire politically.

"I have urged leadership to reconsider bringing it up next week,” Representative Renee Ellmers told National Journal, before she and other Republican women won the day. “We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we're moving forward. The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn't be on an issue where we know that millennials—social issues just aren't as important [to them]."

This was a fitting intermission, perhaps an inevitable one, to a story that began with Republicans trying to improve their standing among women voters by sending their members to sensitivity training, and seizing the "war on women" cudgel to wield against Democrats. What had gotten the party in trouble wasn’t just a handful of outlying comments that unfairly came to define the party, but a set of underlying convictions, including the certainty that women will lie about rape if that’s what it takes to get an abortion. This was more than just a branding problem that could be overcome by teaching a bunch of old-fashioned men the virtue of keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Invariably, though, this is how the Republican Party tries to remedy its political weaknesses. Not by changing whatever’s causing the problems, but by seeming to. By treating all political defeats and victories as evidence of inferior or superior partisan jousting, and making rhetorical adjustments as necessary. And this is where we return to income inequality, which has suddenly become a cause célèbre for Republicans—or at least, it seems to have.

For years Republicans have treated the political movement to reverse rising income inequality as a symptom of envy. Now, it’s the first thing their leading presidential hopefuls want to talk about. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush got the ball rolling, but Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul took it to a new level this weekend at of all places a confab hosted by a Koch-backed political nonprofit.

“I chuckle every time I hear Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton talk about income inequality, because it’s increased dramatically under their policies,” Cruz told panel moderator Jon Karl.

This would be the jarring sound of things getting better if Republicans were trying to do more than just eat into the Democratic Party’s polling margin. But let me spare you the surprise:

Romney’s big plan to reduce inequality is to cut everyone’s taxes, and on "60 Minutes," John Boehner and Mitch McConnell took turns blaming Obama for rising inequality, and dismissing useful tools for reducing it. Boehner described the idea of increasing inheritance taxes on wealthy people as “Dead. Real dead.”

“The GOP’s core agenda hasn’t changed,” MSNBC’s Suzy Khimm explains. But rhetorical innovations like these reflect “a larger effort by leading Republicans to voice more sympathy for America’s poor.”

As alms go, this is not unlike appealing to women voters by sending sponsors of the report-your-rape requirement to sensitivity training. The Ellmers-led revolt suggests that actual policy matters, too. Democrats have grappled with similar problems in the recent past. As Paul Waldman writes at the Washington Post, before the Iraq War eroded the GOP’s national security advantage, “Democrats were always defensive about it, and when they tried to come up with a new message for whatever campaign was looming, the point was never to win the argument over national security. They just wanted to minimize the damage the issue could do to them, or at best, fight to a draw so that the election would hinge on issues where they were stronger.”

This did not go so well. But the comparison understates the GOP challenge. In the early 2000s Democrats didn’t just mimic the right’s bellicose rhetoric. They ceded policy to Republicans in a tremendously consequential way. Republicans will be doing no such thing. They will try to fight inequality to a draw while proposing big tax cuts for the wealthy and sneaking as many financial regulatory rollbacks as they can into law.