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Talk of Wealth Gap Prods the G.O.P.

to Refocus

WASHINGTON President Obamas push for a new middle-class economics may go

nowhere in Congress, but his ambitious array of proposals to raise stagnant incomes and provide
more government support for struggling working families will frame his last two years in office
and help make the politics of rich and poor a central issue in the campaign to succeed him.
With the economy finally on more solid ground, even leading Republicans, on Capitol Hill and
on the nascent 2016 presidential campaign front, are tempering complaints about overall
economic growth and refocusing on the more intractable problem of income inequality.
Mitt Romney, vowing a campaign to end the scourge of poverty if he runs for president a third
time, has backed raising the minimum wage over the wishes of congressional leaders.
At a closed-door retreat last week, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the new majority
leader, encouraged the Republican troops to refocus policy on the stagnant middle class.
Just acknowledging a wealth gap represents a significant shift in language for Republicans, who
have long held that market forces driving overall economic growth will ultimately yield higher
incomes without any help from government.
Bill de Blasio, New Yorks mayor, on Wednesday called middle-class wage stagnation the
dominant issue in our public discourse this year and into next.
Its a striking moment when even Mitt Romney is talking about income equality, Mr. de Blasio
said, and theres some irony in that.
So far, Republicans have embraced few policies to address the issue, but the Democratic focus
has prodded conservative economists into action.
It is going to be a very difficult challenge for conservatives to make the argument that they have
better solutions, because these things sound so appealing, Lanhee J. Chen, Mr. Romneys top
economic adviser in 2012 and now a research fellow at Stanfords Hoover Institution, said of the
presidents proposals for free community college tuition, paid sick leave and middle-class tax
cuts financed by higher taxes on the rich.
In the end, we cant get into a bidding war with the Democrats, but you are seeing more and
more conservatives entering this policy conversation, Mr. Chen said. Frankly, its a positive
thing for the party.
After the presidents combative State of the Union address on Tuesday, administration officials
and top Republicans tried on Wednesday to find some green shoots in the scorched earth.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, in a speech at the Brookings Institution, veered into Republican

territory when he vowed to pursue pro-growth business tax reform that protects and strengthens
the middle class, lowers rates, simplifies the system, levels the playing field, and eliminates
unfair and inefficient loopholes.
Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Ways and Means chairman and perhaps the
Republican Partys leading voice on poverty issues, praised the presidents gifted speech on
MSNBCs Morning Joe and said he was glad Mr. Obama had dialed down on the partisan
class-warfare rhetoric.
Mr. Ryan said accord could be reached on ways to reduce poverty by expanding the earnedincome tax credit to childless adults, as he and the president have proposed, and drafting a public
works bill aimed at modernizing an aging infrastructure.
I just hope that the tone continues that makes it easier for us to reach common ground, Mr.
Ryan said.
But Republicans are divided over whether they need to overhaul their economic policies or
merely recalibrate their message.
Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, said Republicans
needed to do a better job of explaining their policies in an emotional way that shows voters they
care about them and understand their life experiences. Its not that we want to cut taxes because
the math looks better, he said. Its because we want people to make better decisions for
themselves and believe they know how to use their money better than the government.
Representative Paul D. Ryan, center, praised the president for avoiding partisan class-warfare
rhetoric in his State of the Union address. Credit Pool photo by Mandel Ngan
Its not just balancing a budget for the sake of balancing a budget, Mr. Spicer continued. Its
balancing a budget because right now were heaping debt and burden onto the next generation,
and thats not fair to them.
The problem for Republicans, though, is that a debate over wage stagnation and a shrinking
middle class plays on Democratic turf, where Democrats can offer up what Mr. Romney once
derided as free stuff.
Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee,
started the bidding this month with an ambitious plan to tax Wall Street financial transactions and
raise taxes on the top 1 percent of earners to pay for a paycheck bonus credit of $2,000 a year
for couples earning less than $200,000. His plan also calls for a tripling of the tax credit for child
care and expanding tax incentives for savers.
On Wednesday, congressional Democrats reintroduced legislation to block companies based in
the United States from shifting their headquarters elsewhere to lower their tax burden. Senator
Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont, proposed an expansion of Social Security.

This plays to the Democratic sweet spot, said James Pethokoukis, a commentator at the
conservative American Enterprise Institute who writes on economic policy. They can say, Hey,
we have a whole set of answers.
Republicans need a serious response, Mr. Pethokoukis said. Traditional conservative economic
theory holds that business expansion creates jobs, tightens the labor market and pushes up wages.
Targeting any particular income bracket, this thinking goes, is unnecessary and
Yet after nearly five years of payroll expansion and 11 million new jobs, real incomes have
barely budged for the vast majority of Americans. And so far, the wealth generated by the
growing economy has not trickled down. The median weekly wage for full-time workers at the
end of 2014 was $796, up from a seasonally adjusted $794 a year before, and actually below the
levels in 2009, when the expansion began.
Republicans shouldnt be afraid to say whatever gains are out there, theyre going to the top 10
percent, Mr. Pethokoukis said.
Only a few Republicans have flirted with the kind of populism Democrats have embraced.
Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana conservative, has endorsed being much tougher on the biggest
banks, and possibly breaking them up. Dave Camp of Michigan, who retired from the House this
year, blazed the trail for Mr. Obamas bank-tax proposal as part of a larger tax overhaul plan he
issued last year as Ways and Means chairman. Republican leaders rejected the proposal.
Indeed, most Republican counterproposals have been modest. Mr. Ryan has embraced expanding
the earned-income tax credit effectively a wage subsidy, first championed by conservative
economists like Milton Friedman even though Republicans have grown leery of it since
Democrats embraced it during the Clinton administration. On Wednesday, Senator Mike Lee of
Utah and Representative Martha Roby of Alabama, both Republicans, reintroduced legislation to
expand workers choice between paid overtime and comp time, a proposal pitched as an assist to
working families but opposed by unions as an attack on the 40-hour workweek.
Mr. Chen, the former Romney adviser, said conservative economists had focused on wage
subsidies through the tax code and more aggressive worker retraining programs through publicprivate partnerships and apprenticeships. To counter free community college, such economists
have suggested offering incentives to universities to make sure students complete their degrees.
But such reform conservatism has a long way to go before being accepted by the dominant
players in Republican circles.
Mr. Obama is not just pursuing the wrong policies, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said
Wednesday. Theyre the wrong priorities, and growing Washingtons bureaucracy here instead
of helping to grow the economy and helping to grow opportunities for middle-class families.
Theres a better way, he said. We need to fix our broken tax code, balance our budget, replace
the broken health care law with solutions that lower cost and protect jobs.
Gay Marriage Case Offers G.O.P. Political Cover
WASHINGTON The news Friday that the Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage
brought elation from gays and lesbians who are hopeful the justices will grant them the
constitutional protections they have long sought.
But another group also saw a possible reason to celebrate if the court does indeed rule that way:
If the high court resolves the issue as expected in June, it could deliver a decision that has the
benefit of largely neutralizing a debate that a majority of Americans believe Republicans are on
the wrong side of and well ahead of the partys 2016 presidential primaries.
To have the question disposed of and dispensed with, many Republicans say, could make their
opinions on the matter largely moot, providing a political escape hatch that gives them an excuse
to essentially say: Its been settled. Lets move on.
When the Supreme Court said it would take up the question, the reticence to wade into the debate
was evident. In most corners of the party and, notably, from those who are likely to seek the
Republican presidential nomination there was silence late last week. The desire to calibrate
unremarkable and inoffensive responses shows how the debate over same-sex marriage
significantly departs from other major constitutional questions on social issues like abortion and
why, unlike abortion, it may not endure as an issue.
After Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, anti-abortion groups were galvanized to overturn what
the court had done through either a constitutional amendment or the appointment of like-minded
jurists on all levels of the federal bench. It is a fight that rages on today. Good luck in a
Republican primary saying the Supreme Court has decided the abortion issue and we should
move on, said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. Thats what you call a nonstarter.
And yet that is exactly what many Republicans have started to say about same-sex marriage. Few
expect the same kind of mass movement to grow out of a decision that declares a constitutional
protection to marry, nor do they envision the Republican primary process being dominated by
litmus-test questions like the ones candidates face on abortion Would you support a
constitutional ban? and Would you pledge to appoint only justices who would overturn?
Polling shows that support for abortion rights is about where it was when Roe was decided,
hovering around 50 percent, according to Gallup. Support for same-sex marriage approaches 60
percent in some polls and keeps growing. (While a handful of senior elected Republicans like
Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine have broken with their party, the
official national platform endorses marriage between only a man and a woman, and Republican
lawmakers at all levels of government have led the charge against full legalization.)

There is, however, a significant portion of the party, notably its election-minded operative class
and those hailing from liberal-leaning or moderate states, who were all but exultant over the
news Friday because the court could at last settle the matter.
I think its probably going to be a relief, because if the Supreme Court makes a final
determination and goodness knows, nobody can guess what the Supremes are going to do
then its off the table, said Shawn Steel, the Republican committeeman from California.
What also is different about the same-sex marriage question is that many of the politicians who
are likely to seek the Republican nomination have been forced to directly confront it because the
courts or legislatures in their states have moved so quickly to grant marriage rights.
This has led them to hew to a carefully circumscribed script. Crafted with the input of some of
the partys savviest messengers, it expresses sentiments that are fundamentally conservative:
respect for the rule of law and the courts that are increasingly siding with gay and lesbian
couples who want to marry, and a recognition that people who want to share a committed
relationship should not be marginalized.
Consider the statements from Republicans like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Mike
Pence of Indiana and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, all of whom are considered possible
presidential candidates. A settled issue, Mr. Christie said after a state court ruled in 2013 that
the state could not deny same-sex couples marriage rights.
Mr. Pence, speaking after the Supreme Court cleared the way in October for same-sex marriage
in Indiana and four other states, said, People are free to disagree with court decisions, but we
are not free to disobey them.
Mr. Walker, whose state was also included in that October decision, was just as acquiescent. For
us, its over in Wisconsin, he said. Mr. Walker, like Mr. Pence, had wanted the Supreme Court
to uphold his states ban.
When Jeb Bush weighed in this month after Florida started marrying gay and lesbian couples, he
issued a statement that showed a politician who had undergone a striking evolution since his days
as governor, when he defended a ban on allowing gay couples to adopt children and equated gay
rights with special treatment for a class of people who did not deserve it. We live in a
democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law, he said in a
statement that stirred considerable discussion. Mr. Bush, a religious Catholic, also urged respect
for couples making lifetime commitments to each other.
But what remains problematic for these candidates and what is reflected in statements they
often make in the next breath about the importance of safeguarding religious liberties is the
fact that many Republican primary voters do not want to drop the fight.
Marriage wont be the issue in the Southern primaries, said Oran Smith, head of the
conservative Palmetto Family Council in South Carolina. But it is a box, an important box, that
simply must be checked.

With the center-right 2016 hopefuls expressing a certain sense of acceptance that same-sex
marriage in all 50 states could be a foregone conclusion, there is an opening for socially
conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, and Rick Santorum,
the former senator from Pennsylvania, to make gay rights a wedge.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another possible Republican contender, has also signaled that he
would push hard on the issue.
The impact of a decision allowing gay couples to marry could also echo beyond that narrow
question, prompting greater demands on the right for commitments from candidates about who
they would or would not appoint to the bench.
A decision redefining marriage will highlight even more the importance of Supreme Court
appointments, said Russell Moore, a senior official with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Evangelicals and other social conservatives will want to hear from candidates what sort of
judicial philosophy they will look for in making appointments. The usual clichd slogans wont
be enough.
But a court decision complicates the question for conservatives who espouse the importance of
respecting the constitutional prerogatives of each government branch. Some conservatives
foresee a split between those who would honor a decision they disagree with and those who
would say it is illegitimate.
Mr. Huckabee is one potential candidate who appears willing to challenge other conservatives on
this point. Speaking to a rally of advocates who oppose same-sex marriage last year, he said that
the nine justices needed reminding of who defines marriage.
They are only the Supreme Court, not the supreme branch of government, he said. They are
most certainly not the Supreme Being, from which all law ultimately emanates.