With the notable exception of a cross-dressing Uncle Sam on stilts, I haven’t really been surprised by anything I’ve seen here at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Convention, the right’s premiere, annual multi-day confab). For the most part, it’s been what I’d expected to see at a massive gathering of conservative activists, politicians and media members — a lot of khakis; a lot of high heels; a lot of wrinkles; a lot of white hair; and a lot of red, white and blue. I was expecting to see more Rand Paul swag, I suppose, but in terms of visual surprises, that and Uncle Sam in Wonderland is about it.
But when it comes to the sounds of CPAC, that’s a different story. I expected the soundtrack to be a collection of aged radio-rock classics from the glory years of the baby boomer era (AC/DC seems to be especially popular) and I expected to hear a round of applause whenever anything — and I mean anything — negative was said about Obamacare. What I didn’t expect, however, was to hear so much talk about economic inequality. During CPAC’s opening day, in fact, it was referenced, explicitly or implicitly, by one GOP heavyweight after another.
As someone who agrees with the president that (besides global warming) inequality is the “defining issue of our time,” this was encouraging. If both parties are taking inequality seriously, maybe some of the less ideologically charged means to combat it, like increasing the earned-income tax credit or lowering the costs of higher education, might one day become law. Unfortunately, what was also revealed by one CPAC speaker after another is that Republican thinking on inequality is muddled, self-contradictory and, above all else, driven by political necessity rather than actual conviction.
One of the more obvious signs of how unserious Republicans are when it comes to inequality is their seeming inability to decide whether or not it even exists. Rep. Paul Ryan charged that the only reason Democrats were talking about inequality was because “they’re out of ideas” and “cannot talk about economic growth.” But just a few hours later, Gov. Chris Christie — who, like Ryan, is considered a possible future presidential candidate — declared with absolute certainty that “We don’t have an inequality problem.” The real issue is a lack of “opportunity,” said Christie, who had pretended earlier to be speaking directly to President Obama, telling him “no one cares about your opinion on inequality.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for his part, seemed to agree with Ryan. Although the powerful Kentucky Republican never actually said the word “inequality,” he assured CPAC’s assembled conservatives that “the greatest con game” in politics is the notion that redistribution “is good for the little guy.” Using language one would expect to hear at an Occupy reunion more than a right-wing confab, McConnell said that, because of liberalism, “the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class is being squeezed like never before.” McConnell even went so far as to say that he “can’t stand” the fact that “never before has it been so hard for the rich to become poor or for the poor to become rich.”
Yet for every example of a conservative acknowledging that something is awry with the distribution of wealth in the U.S. — like when Sen. Ted Cruz lamented how “Wall Street prospers while Main Street suffers” — there was another example of a conservative implying that the whole idea of inequality was bunk — like when Sen. Marco Rubio said the Democrat “always tries to divide people” by telling them “the reason why you’re worse off is because someone else is doing too well.” For every Sen. Mike Lee calling to “end cronyist privilege and corporate welfare … and put America’s political and corporate elites back to work for the rest of us,” there was a National Review editor Rich Lowry calling the president’s focus on inequality a “nightmare” that ran contrary to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the president with whom Obama is, in Lowry’s telling, “obsessed.”
During Ryan’s speech, one of the convention’s first, the former vice presidential candidate attempted to refashion the GOP’s much-discussed internal strife as an example of an ultimately beneficial “creative tension.” But this Janus-faced response to the inequality question is much too confused and incoherent to be spun as a manifestation of conservatism’s so-called Big Tent. So rather than chalk it up to conservatism’s supposed propensity for intellectual diversity, maybe there’s a simpler and more prosaic explanation: the same-old conflict between political necessity and the tenets of the modern conservative movement.
Take Cruz, for example. Widely believed to be planning a White House run in 2016, the conservative firebrand and Tea Party darling knows he has no reason to worry about keeping the GOP’s activist base on his side. Cruz’s worry will be over whether he can convince enough (relatively) moderate Republicans that he’s able to reach a wider audience. He doesn’t need to convince the conservative rank-and-file that he’s a libertarian on economic policy; they know he is. But he does need to persuade the Republican Party’s donor base, who cares about electability above all else, that he can speak to people who live outside the conservative bubble — people who are upset over America’s grossly unequal distribution of wealth. So he talks about Wall Street and Main Street, giving the impression that he sees something wrong with the financial class’s largesse.
Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, meanwhile, are faced with an inverse of the Cruz dilemma. While the GOP’s moneymen have no doubt that the Cuban-American Rubio and the twice blue-state-approved Christie can appeal to voters who’d never give a true believer like Cruz a second look, the kind of Republicans who make up the CPAC crowd are far less comfortable with the idea of placing their hopes in a one-time supporter of “amnesty” or a Medicaid-expanding, gun-control-supporting and previously Barack-Obama-praising “moderate.” For both men, then, the best move is pandering to the hardcore conservative’s near-religious belief that talking about inequality is the same as promoting “envy” and class warfare. So they castigate the left for its egalitarianism, giving the impression that they’re rigid laissez-faire capitalists who’d never question the socioeconomic sorting of the free-market’s invisible hand.
The same logic holds true for Ryan, who has as of late angered the conservatives who used to love him so by orchestrating the passage of a bipartisan budget and voicing his support for immigration reform; and McConnell, who is facing a tough reelection against a populist Democrat in a state where his Frank Underwood-esque mastery of politics’ darker arts is becoming a hindrance more than a help. In both of these examples, too, we see politicians contorting themselves in an effort to prove that they’re devoted to an economic vision that a majority of voters has rejected in five of the last six presidential elections while, at the same time, capable of persuading a sufficient number of members of the 99 percent that they’ll look out for their interests once given the reins of power.
It’s an awkward and mildly embarrassing sight, really. It’s also as good a representation as you’re likely to find of the discombobulated and schizophrenic nature of today’s GOP. And while it’d be nice to see a Republican Party that takes fighting inequality half as seriously as it does cutting taxes on the rich, writing from CPAC, I can attest — you’ll have better luck finding a gender-bending Uncle Sam ambling through a hotel hallway on stilts, waving and smiling from 15 feet up in the air.