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Yesterday on CNN’s State of the Union, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said the following about the current GOP presidential field:
I don't think they're yet talking about the things…that have a lot of zeros attached to them, the ones that are threatening to kill not just an economy but the entire idea of America, the idea of upward mobility from the bottom and tomorrow is better than today…I'll tell you what's bothering me a little bit [is] the president is clearly in very desperate political shape. And it seems more clear every day. And I worry a little bit, ironically, that the Republican field or our nominee might look at that and say, I'll just play it safe, I'll get elected as the default option, you know, he made it worse, I'm not him, vote for me. (emphasis added)
Daniels is known as a serious reformer, and his public pronouncements about the new “red menace,” America’s debt, have been widely covered, lauded, and discussed. His sobriety and proven record of reform convinced many he would be the most capable of fixing the nation’s fiscal mess – if he were to run for President in 2012 (and, as we all know, he's not) and win.
But along with his message about America's fiscal condition, Daniels has also consistently preached the gospel of upward mobility – something one rarely hears Republicans talk about, and something about Daniels that has gotten little coverage.
Back in a February speech to CPAC that was broadly praised, Daniels said:
We must display a heart for every American, and a special passion for those still on the first rung of life’s ladder. Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts. Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it, but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some. (emphasis added)
And just last week on The Daily Show, he told John Stewart “the heart of our challenge is to restore and strengthen upward mobility in this country and the possibilities for a stable and hopeful middle class.” (emphasis added) He made this point a couple of times in the interview.
Daniels’ new book is effectively a meditation on how to reverse the generation-long trend toward ordinary workers in the private sector being forced to pay for more and more government that doesn’t offer them much in return. A central thread in the book is that our fiscal crisis and the government that has created it does the most violence to the middle class and the vulnerable, and a range of ideas in the book – from growth-oriented tax simplification and reforming the safety net through a negative income tax – are aimed at spurring growth that benefits the middle class, not just the wealthy.
For instance, Ryan told Bloomberg over the weekend:
The president is using rhetoric that divides people, that preys on people’s sense of anxiety, fear, envy. What we’re trying to do is appeal to people’s sense of hope, aspiration. We want an equal- opportunity society. We want a society of upward mobility, and that is what we’re striving for. (emphasis added)
In his statement on the Congressional Budget Office’s August warning about the deficit, he said that the House Republicans’ efforts were aimed at ensuring “upward mobility and greater opportunity for all Americans.” (emphasis added)
Daniels has noted this about Ryan, too. Last month, on CSPAN’s Washington Journal, he praised Ryan as someone who would “do whatever it takes to restore upward mobility in this country, to restore the conditions for a stable, broad middle class.”
This kind of language is sorely missing in the rhetoric we’re hearing from the 2012 GOP presidential candidates, and one doesn’t hear much of it from Republicans in Congress, either.
Does that really matter? Some might say it’s all a matter of language and doesn’t make any material difference in policy and politics.
It does matter.
First, the idea of upward mobility is a different priority than abstract notions such as fairness or incomplete goals such as lower government spending. Rather, it trains our focus on median income and the demographics of middle America. The middle class in America faces a massive collective tax burden in the future, primarily because of entitlements, and they will be the most affected – negatively or positively – by the direction our economy takes over the next decade. One more decade like what we have just experienced, and the idea that the middle class is the incubator out of which dreams for a better life grow will be an antique.
Second, talking about upward mobility is also good politics - or better politics than what we presently see. Restoring hope for the middle, rather than pitting the top against the bottom as Obama is determined to do, offers the best alternative for explaining a vision for the future to voters. Right now, Republicans are all too comfortable defending wealthy Americans against Obama’s attacks. They need to put forward a different counterpunch that appeals to more Americans and is consistent with conservative fiscal and economic policy. Talking about what we need to do to foster more upward mobility is a better approach than pointing out ad nauseum that the rich already pay a lot in taxes, which - however true - does not resonate positively with voters.