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The Democratic divide on inequality is about message not substance

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Hug it out
Hug it out
Boston Globe

As long as I've been writing about politics in Washington, income inequality has been something that left-of-center intellectuals like to talk about and professional political operatives regard as a non-starter in practical politics. That changed briefly in 2013 as the Obama administration began talking about inequality and the president gave speeches in which he warned about "a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America's basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead."

He called that "the defining challenge of our time."

More recently, though, the old conventional wisdom has reasserted itself and, as Zachary Goldfarb writes for the Washington Post, leading Democrats are no longer talking about inequality in their political messaging. He connects this to an "ongoing dispute between the Democratic Party's liberal and moderate wings" but the striking thing about it is the extent to which the dispute is a dispute about speechwriting tactics and not public policy.

As it happens, I was at that "defining challenge" speech and immediately after the president finished speaking I got to talking to a wonk who was in the audience and whose views I knew to be well to the left of the key economic policy gurus in the White House. We agreed that what was odd about the speech was that while it unveiled a bold new framing of Obama's economic agenda, there was no new policy departure. What Obama stood for before inequality became the defining challenge of our time was exactly what he stood for after it became the defining challenge of our time.

In the speech, Obama touted the Affordable Care Act and food stamps, called for a higher minimum wage, said it's important to improve education, called for federally-subsidized preschool, called for corporate tax reform, and called for infrastructure spending. He reiterated his support for a budget deal that would rescind the sequester and reduce the long-term deficit. He defended Social Security and Medicare but also said "progressives should be open to reforms that actually strengthen these programs and make them more responsive to a 21st century economy."

In other words, he restated consensus Democratic Party ideas on the shape and purpose of the welfare state in America.

And the next Democratic Party presidential nominee — whether it's Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren or whoever else — will run on those same ideas, whether or not they explicitly link them to income inequality (as Obama did in 2013) or not (as Obama did in 2008 and 2012). The simple fact of the matter is that today's Democrats don't disagree about very much. Every single Democrat in congress — and certainly any plausible national leader  — regularly backs proposals to make rich people pay more taxes in order to finance more generous benefits for people in the bottom half of the income distribution. Depending on your tastes, you may see this as a sign that the party has a strong agenda or a sign that the party has become intellectually stagnant but either way it's not much of a debate.

Indeed, the extent to which questions about whether speeches use the phrase "inequality" and/or strike a populist tone are under scrutiny these days are mostly an indicator of how little is dividing Democrats.

For a sense of what a real policy disagreement looks like, consider the brewing intra-conservative argument about taxes. The mainstream Republican view has been that the party should reduce tax rates on the highest-income Americans, even if doing so requires the middle class to pay higher taxes. But a dissident viewpoint embraced by Senator Mike Lee and others says the GOP should reduce tax rates on middle class parents even if doing so requires higher taxes on some wealthy people. Those are two different ideas. What you have on the Democratic side is really just two different ways of talking about the same idea.