Robert Kuttner: ‘Decades of Conservative Obstruction’ Have Weakened Liberals’ ‘Power to Inspire’

Democrats control the White House and Senate and won a clear majority of the vote in 2012 House elections, but American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner thinks that Republicans might be even less popular if Dems weren’t so shy about advocating economic policies markedly to the left of the ones they now support.

In a Monday post, Kuttner argued that only the rich have benefited from thirty-plus years of “tax cuts, limited social spending, deregulation, and privatization,” which caused him to wonder, “If conservatives offer little that’s credible to the anxious middle class, why aren’t liberals just trouncing them?” His three-part answer:

-- “[T]the right has been so successful at blocking liberal initiatives to deliver tangible help that the middle class is not sure which party to trust.”

-- “Compromises like the Affordable Care Act that do make it through Congress are hobbled by a costly and complex role for commercial middlemen—and seem to represent government inefficiency.”

-- “[T]he details are wonky. This exercise is more about slogans and headlines. Only a tiny fraction of voters will notice the holes in the specifics. So despite such empty rhetoric, Republicans are poised to win the midterm elections.”

From Kuttner’s piece (emphasis added):

…With new public attention being paid to inequality of income and wealth, these concerns don’t exactly play to conservative strength. The era since 1981 has been one of turning away from public remediation, toward tax cuts, limited social spending, deregulation, and privatization. None of this worked well, except for the very top. For everyone else, the shift to conservative policies generated more economic insecurity. The remedies are those of liberals...So what’s a conservative to do?

A good illustration of how the right is responding is a manifesto titled Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. The document is a series of essays written by people who profess to be intellectually serious, “reform conservatives,” as a credulous press calls them...

At least these conservatives admit Republicans have a problem. The document begins by candidly stating the plight of the middle class and the challenges facing the right. “Sixty-two percent of those in the middle class say the Republican Party favors the rich while 16 percent say the Democratic Party favors the rich,” [Peter] Wehner writes. “Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals.”

Well, yes. But the remedies the [reformers] offer are mostly the same old stuff—more tax cuts, tax credits for everything from health insurance to education, more deregulation…

To read this manifesto, you would think liberals had been in charge since 1981 and that the woes of the middle class had not worsened during an era of conservative dominance...

So what’s a liberal to do?

As the party that considers itself responsible stewards of government, Democrats are reluctant to offer proposals that stand no immediate chance of passage. The liberal imagination has been stunted by decades of conservative obstruction and has lost its power to inspire. Most of what ails the middle class requires far more robust policies than are currently in mainstream debate. Liberals should say what they are really for. They might even win more followers.

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