By John David Dyche
President Obama addressed a very important topic in his recent speech to the liberals at the Center for American Progress. And he was absolutely right about some things.
For example, Obama is correct that, "The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe." He is also right that this "is not simply a moral claim," but is "bad for the economy, for families and social cohesion, and for democracy."
Most conservatives and libertarians concur. Charles Murray's landmark book Coming Apart argued that declines in "founding virtues" of industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion were creating new classes that are isolated from each other as never before in America.
Murray described a new lower class of jobless men and unwed women with children. He is equally concerned about a new upper class that attends the same elite schools, lives in the same exclusive suburbs, intermarries, and has lost the close connection with other social classes that once characterized this country. Murray makes the case that the continued divergence of these groups endangers what made America distinctive and great.
These issues of class, inequality, and mobility hurt Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Remember his remark that the 47 percent of the people who were dependent on government would vote for Obama no matter what? His performance among working class white voters was disappointing.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah took on this issue in an October speech at the Heritage Foundation.
Lee says contemporary conservatives must offer reforms to combat what he calls the "opportunity crisis."
His description of the crisis is not much different than Obama's. It consists of "immobility among the poor, trapped in poverty; insecurity in the middle class, where families just can't seem to get ahead; and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic elites unfairly profit at everyone else's expense."
Lee says the GOP needs "a new, comprehensive anti-poverty, upward-mobility agenda designed not simply to help people in poverty, but to help and empower them to get out." The nature of that agenda is, of course, is where Obama and Lee part company.
Obama prefers policies of confiscation (higher taxes on higher earners), mandates (increased minimum wage), and redistribution (income transfer programs). Indeed, Obamacare is the embodiment of the progressive prescription.
Lee would repeal Obamacare and replace it with one or more of several conservative health care reform proposals now in play. But he also offered ideas to tackle four particular problems facing the working class.
First is the high cost of raising children. His Family Fairness and Opportunity Tax Reform Act "calls for a 15 percent tax rate on all income up to $87,850 — or $175,700 for married couples" with "income above that threshold would be taxed at 35 percent." The bill also "simplifies the code, eliminating or reforming most deductions," and creates "a new, additional $2,500 per-child tax credit that can offset parents' income and payroll-tax liability."
To help with the difficulties of work-life balance he offers legislation to "equalize flex-time rules for all workers." This would change federal law so businesses could let an employee who works overtime on Monday, for example, leave early on Friday instead of getting overtime pay.
To reduce "the time Americans lose away from work and home, stuck in traffic" Lee would "open up America's transportation system to diversity and experimentation." He wants so reduce the federal gas tax over five years from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents and transfer more highway authority from the federal government to the states. That would give local communities more freedom to develop the kind of transportation system they want.
Lee's Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act would deal with "the rising costs of and restricted access to quality higher education." It envisions "alternative accreditation systems to open up new options for students qualifying for federal aid." This would promote "specialized programs, individual courses, apprenticeships, professional credentialing, and even competency-based tests."
The Obamacare debacle has discredited audacious progressivism for now. Lee and other conservatives who are oriented to practical problem-solving, like New Jersey governor Chris Christie, are showing signs of seizing the opportunity.
But conservative attitudes and communication are almost as important as good ideas and new laws. For Republicans to reclaim the mantle of an opportunity and upward mobility party, and not just an anti-Obama one, they must always be mindful of how people now outside the party perceive them.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.