Senate will take up extended unemployment benefits as part of a
broader Democratic push to focus on issues on income inequality ahead
of the 2014 midterm elections.
By Francine Kiefer
WASHINGTON — For months now, it has been clear that Republicans will
try to make the 2014 midterm elections all about “Obamacare” as they
push to win majority control of the Senate. This week, Democrats will
counter in earnest with their election theme. Starting Monday, they
will turn to issues of income inequality in a bid not only to rouse
their base, but also to win support from middle-class Americans who
worry that only the rich are getting richer.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) will try to clear a legislative
hurdle to allow a vote on extending unemployment insurance for 1.3
million long-term jobless Americans whose benefits expired Dec. 28.
Look, too, for Senate Democrats to push for a higher federal minimum
wage. Democrats are making both efforts against the historic backdrop
of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” launched 50 years ago
this week in his State of the Union message.
President Obama, meanwhile, will carry the torch further on Jan. 28,
when he’ll use his State of the Union address to echo a pre-Christmas
speech in which he declared that income inequality and declining
social mobility are “the defining challenge of our time.”
It is a political strategy that carries some risks. Some Americans are
already wary of Mr. Obama’s aims, wondering whether he lied to them —
falsely telling them they could keep health insurance plans they liked
— in order to win passage of legislation that makes insurance widely
available to the poor. Moreover, the inequality issue has the
potential to expose a fault line among Democrats, with liberals such
as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pushing the party to go much
further down the path of federal entitlements and benefits than many
others are comfortable going.
So far, the party appears to be stopping short of an Occupy Wall
Street revival. Extending long-term unemployment benefits and raising
the minimum wage both have majority public support, according to
polls. Those polls also reveal a broad unease about the widening
But with the Republican base fired up for what is shaping up to be a
low-turnout midterm election, the clearest target for Democrats’ new
push is likely Democratic voters themselves. The question, then,
becomes: How far should Democrats go?
“Democrats must be careful in how they frame the issue” of inequality,
says John Pitney Jr., a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna
College in California. “If voters think that the idea is to
redistribute wealth from the middle class to the poor, Democrats will
Since the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act on Oct. 1, the
problem that most concerns Americans has been “dissatisfaction with
the government,” not the economy generally, which has fallen into
second place, followed by health care, according to Gallup. The gap
between the rich and poor is farther down the list: Only 2 percent
rank it as the country’s top problem. Therein lies the balancing act
for Democrats trying to steer public interest away from the problems
of Obamacare to an issue — helping the downtrodden — where the party
holds an historic advantage.
For now, Democrats appear to be opting for caution. About 2 in 3
Americans want Congress to boost the minimum wage, according to a
Washington Post-ABC poll released last month. Op from $7.25 anbama supports a Senate
bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, u
hour, where it has stood since 2009.
The attempt is to help the working poor. Whether you contrast the wage
growth of the lowest-income earners with the highest in America, or
look at the percentage of overall wealth controlled by the richest,
economic inequality has intensified. Meanwhile, the poverty rate —
roughly 15 percent for the past three years — is up from a low of 11
percent in 1973.
The Washington Post-ABC poll shows a majority of Americans concerned
about this trend: 57 percent of the public says Congress should pursue
policies aimed at rebalancing an economy that’s out of whack.
Likewise, 55 percent of Americans support maintaining unemployment
insurance for the long-term jobless, according to a recent Hart
Research poll. While affecting only a slice of the workforce, such a
move resonates with many Americans who fear they may lose their jobs,
and worry about what will happen to them if they do. “That’s why this
issue could work for Democrats,” says Mr. Pitney.
Democrats are also carefully choosing their rhetoric. Some have
invoked the popular Pope Francis, who recently warned that income
inequality will lead to “an economy of exclusion.” Some are citing
economist Mark Zandi, former adviser to Sen. John McCain (R) of
Arizona, who defends benefits for the long-term unemployed as a boost
to economic growth. They note that the nonpartisan Congressional
Budget Office finds that failure to renew unemployment benefits will
cost more than 200,000 jobs. And they are highlighting individual
cases to put human faces on their arguments.
In this way, Democrats can hope to turn the tables on Republicans.
Going back to the Great Depression and the New Deal, Democrats have
made defending the downtrodden their trademark — and that issue can be
a challenge for Republicans, who sometimes sound out-of-touch. A prime
example: 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comment about the
47 percent of Americans who are “dependent on government” and
“unwilling to take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
It reinforced his plutocrat image in the 2012 campaign, which Obama
went on to win handily even in a bad economy.
Some Republicans are trying to counter the Democrats on income
inequality. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah (who helped lead the fight to shut
down the government) and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are using softer
language, promoting private-sector solutions that emphasize
volunteerism and charity, and touting tax cuts as a way to spur
growth. “The perception that the GOP does not care about people” is “a
major deficiency,” a Republican National Committee review of the 2012
campaign found. The review suggested that the party “be the champion
of those who seek to climb the economic ladder.”
“Washington has gummed up the works,” Representative Ryan told an Iowa
crowd in November, according to the Washington Post. “It’s made it
harder for people to get ahead, and the idea of upward mobility, of
equal opportunity, is slipping farther and farther away from people
who haven’t seen it for generations.” For months, Ryan — Mr. Romney’s
running mate, who may well seek the presidency in 2016 — has been
meeting with neighborhood leaders in cities nationwide. He’s expected
soon to lay out a plan to combat poverty.
Republican lawmakers may well block an extension of jobless benefits
if it’s not paid for by offsetting savings, and they generally oppose
an increase to the minimum wage as a disincentive to hire. But even if
Democrats in Congress don’t come away with a legislative win on these
points, their efforts to defending the disadvantaged will play well
with the Democratic base.
Democrats are “outlining an agenda” not only for this year, but also
for future years, says congressional historian Julian Zelizer at
“A lot of Democrats feel the last two years have been consumed with
health care… and the deficit,” he explains. “Until you shift the
debate, you’re not going to be able to get in a position where
you can push for legislation like the [higher] minimum wage. And
this is the right time because the Republicans are in a moment of
division” over whether to obstruct or to compromise.