By all accounts, the biggest loser from Tuesday night's Democratic debate was the Republicans. The Democrats discussed the issues and argued with each other while mostly avoiding personal attacks. It was hard not to draw a mental contrast between these adult-acting Democrats and Republicans, who can't even get it together to elect a House Speaker and whose primary process is dominated by a man who makes facetious remarks about the Holocaust and a literal reality TV star.
In response, conservative media and politicians are just doubling down on the lame politics of resentment, accusing Democrats of wanting to give away "free stuff." The problem is that what they are describing as "free stuff" is actually the opposite: Democratic ideas are all about helping people work. Sneering at people's ambitions and desire to work hard as "free stuff" is not going to help overcome the image of conservatives as a bunch of ideologues who don't have the maturity to understand complex issues, much less come up with solutions to help make this country more productive and fairer to everyone.
All the social and labor-related policy proposals discussed during the debate last night were geared towards the goal of making it easier for working Americans: A higher minimum wage to make working more worthwhile, child care and family leave so that people with families can continue working at their jobs, health care so that people's lives aren't derailed by illness, and education so that hard-working people can realize their career ambitions. Even the dreaded socialist Bernie Sanders focused his pitch around the idea that people want to work and that the government's job is to help them get and hold on to a job.
But to hear conservatives speak of it, giving people the tools they need to work for a living is somehow about laziness and "free stuff." Marco Rubio helped kick things off by complaining, right after the debate, that it was "basically a liberal verses liberal debate about who was going to give away the most free stuff."
Also after the debate, the Fox and Friends cast worked the "free stuff" angle. "They're giving stuff away," Stuart Varney complained. "In fact, I keep going back to this. They're buying votes."
Laura Ingraham, a guest on Fox and Friends, was particularly incensed at the idea of making college more affordable for everyone. "All the kids in college, like, yeah, we can keep playing foosball and hanging out after college because we're all going to," she argued, "they're going to take care of us."
Perhaps Ingraham spent her college years goofing off and not studying---the quality of her radio program certainly is evidence for that---but that's not what college is actually like for most students. The people she's trying to portray as lazy leeches are mostly hard-working kids, many of whom hold jobs in addition to going to school full-time. The Sanders program she's hating on actually proposes expanding the work-study program, so that more college students who want a job can have one. Far from being a giveaway to the lazy, this is about making sure people who want to work and strive have a chance to do so.
Right down the line, every item that Rubio and the Fox News folks try to spin as giveaways are actually programs geared towards getting people to work. Look at the lament issued by Brian Kilmeade: "Childhood education, higher minimum wage, public college, public family leave, health care, health care for children, and in-state tuition for illegals, which they were cheering for!" Every single item on that list is about people who work, not people who want to be paid for sitting on their butt. A higher minimum wage? Well, paying people to work is a well-known incentive to getting them to work. Public family leave? That's there so that people with families don't have to choose between their kids and their job. Health care? Keeping people healthy is critical if you want to keep them working. Education programs? Not only are most students getting educated with an eye towards getting a job, but going to school is, in and of itself, hard work.
Honestly, looking at that list, you might start to wonder if Democrats don't put a little too much value on work. But one thing is for certain: The notion that they're encouraging free-loading is laughable. You don't tie all your incentive systems to working if you don't want people to work.
But it's not surprising to see conservatives flailing like this. The Democratic candidates, particularly Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, laid out an easy-to-understand vision of what they think this country should be like: One where people work hard, absolutely, but one where that hard work pays off. Where getting a job and working on it should result in things like health care and education and a decent life for your family. Indeed, they cast a scornful eye on the real freeloaders in our society, which are the wealthy elite that want to get richer without sharing the wealth with those who created it.
It is this vision that clearly frightens Marco Rubio and the Fox News crew. And so we're greeted with this rhetoric that inverts reality, that labels hard workers as freeloaders, to the point where even your paycheck---see all the anger over the minimum wage---is treated like it's some kind of government giveaway. That kind of rhetoric is good for rallying the troops who thrive on the politics of resentment. But it's not going to do much to convince the rest of voters, who know that they work hard and just want to be able to have something to show for it at the end of the day.