Governor Mitch Daniels, former W. Bush budget director (thanks, Mitch), said in response to Mr. Obama’s address on Tuesday:
As Republicans, our first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder. We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots. We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.
Daniels claims that the “first concern” of Republicans is for those who desire to “climb up life’s latter.” Now, I’m going to pause right here and give you time to grab a tissue and wipe the tears of laughter from your face…
Back? Good. Let’s move on and look at Daniels’ last sentence:
We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.
The truth is that if voters continue filling Republican prescriptions for what ails us as a country, we will, indeed, “always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves,” because the soon-to-haves will always be waiting and hoping for their economic boat to be floated by trickle-down economics.
Americans throughout history have tended to believe that with hard work they could at least better themselves economically. And for more than a generation now, the meme spread by the Republican Party has been that if you just let the “job creators” enjoy more and more of the wealth of this country, then anyone can become, say, a Mitt Romney, even if few people have the stomach to get rich the way he has become rich.
But even if becoming a Romney-like “have” has always been beyond most folks’ expectations or desires, it remains true that economic mobility is the foundation of the American Dream. But upward mobility and income distribution in the U.S. is not what they should be and are certainly is not what they need to be in order to keep the American Dream from becoming the American Mirage.*
From our country’s founding, most Americans have believed that government should have some role—we have always argued over the size of that role—in ensuring that everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic position and reducing—reducing, not eliminating—inequality. The Preamble to our Constitution indicates that our government was formed, among other things, to “insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.”
Surely we can all agree that our domestic tranquility and general welfare are threatened by the gross economic inequality we see around us. Surely we can agree that, in the richest country the world has ever known, the grit and determination woven into American workers’ DNA, manifested in their willingness to work hard and play by the rules, ought to count for more than just earning enough to stay alive.
With the slow death of middle-class-creating unions in this country (remember also that the wages of even non-union folks are higher because unions exist), and with corporations—conscious only of the bottom line—shipping away jobs or keeping wages low and cutting benefits for their American employees, the prospect of improving things for working folks looks bleak.
And it should be obvious that in the face of such bleakness is where government—the people’s government—can act such that Americans today can enjoy what Americans used to enjoy, best expressed by President Obama in his State of the Union address,
the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
In other words, a hard-working American could at least expect to move into the middle-class, if not become a “have” of the stature of a Mitt Romney. I can say without fear of contradiction that most American workers don’t get up in the morning, go to their low-paying jobs, work hard, come home to their families, fret over the cost of health care and the price of gasoline, all in the hopes of one day having Romney-like tax returns, with all the excitement of parking money in the Cayman Islands or in Swiss bank accounts.
And since I believe strongly that Romney will become the Republican nominee, I think it is important to understand what he thinks about all this. Something he said recently—without rehearsal—gives us an insight into how he views America’s income inequalities.
From NBC’s Today Show:
MATT LAUER: When you said that, “We already have a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy,” I’m curious about the word “envy.” Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or is it about fairness?
ROMNEY: You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. I think when you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you’ve opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God. And the American people, I believe in the final analysis, will reject it.
LAUER: Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?
ROMNEY: I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the president has made this part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it’ll fail.
To Romney there are “no fair questions about the distribution of wealth” outside of those discussed in “quiet rooms.” And for President Obama to point out the need to do more to address the problems we have with what Lauer called “the distribution of wealth and power in this country,” is an act of “dividing America” and somehow threatens, for God’s sake, “the concept of one nation under God.”
If you hear Mitt Romney say, as he has said before, that “Republicans are about middle-class America” and that he is “fighting to help middle-class Americans get better jobs and better incomes,” remember that interview.
And if you ever hear Mitch Daniels or any other Republican say again that their “first concern is for those waiting…to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder,” feel free to laugh, long and hard. Just keep a tissue in your pocket.
* From a piece in The Washington Post (“The downward path of upward mobility“):
The most comprehensive comparative study, done last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that “upward mobility from the bottom”…was significantly lower in the United States than in most major European countries, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. Another study, by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Germany in 2006, uses other metrics and concludes that “the U.S. appears to be exceptional in having less rather than more upward mobility.”