Koch Group to Take On Wealth-Gap Debate
One of the Koch brothers’ banner groups plans to make income inequality one of its next big political fights.
Just as the nonprofit Americans For Prosperity has in past election cycles sought to shape the discourse around climate change and health care reform, it now has its sights set on affecting the income inequality debate.
“The Left has denigrated the idea of economic freedom and the American Dream as being able to lift people up,” AFP President Tim Phillips told RealClearPolitics in an interview, “and that’s something long-term we’re going to push back on. Hard.”
Populist issues such as the federal minimum wage, economic mobility and the wage gap between the richest and poorest Americans are poised to be at the center of the political discussion in 2016, fueled in particular by Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.
The discussion has been sparked in no small part by progressive Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has made a national name for herself pushing these themes, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has made the issues the foundation of his presidential bid.
Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and presumptive nominee, has also seized the charge in her presidential campaign, calling out policies that advantage those in positions of political or economic privilege.
“The deck is stacked in their favor,” Clinton said in April during a campaign stop in Claremont, N.H. “My job is to reshuffle the cards.”
Such rhetoric speaks to broad dissatisfaction among Americans with the current economic climate and their share in success. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 66 percent of Americans responded that “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among more people.”
To Phillips, that trend line indicates Republicans have been too complacent, as Democrats have seized on such messaging, even though Republicans performed well at the polls during the midterms.
“We’ve let the income inequality attacks, which frankly is just rank class warfare, we’ve let the Left get away with a lot of that,” Phillips said.
Republican presidential candidates are beginning to try to make the issue their own, acknowledging the opportunity gap that Democrats have pointed to. Jeb Bush has made the “right to rise” a theme of his presidential campaign, while Sen. Rand Paul has promised to “unleash the American Dream.”
"In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful,” Sen. Marco Rubio said during his presidential campaign launch in Miami in April. “But I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.”
But Republicans begin this election cycle at a disadvantage talking about income inequality. In 2012, exit polls showed that 52 percent of voters thought Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s policies would benefit the richest Americans.
Phillips believes Republicans will be helped by Clinton, whom he calls an “ironic messenger” for a populist message, citing her personal wealth.
But it is perhaps also ironic that AFP would be the group looking to reverse the Republican image on income inequality, given that Democrats portrayed the Koch brothers in the midterms as billionaires looking to buy elections.
Still, the group has been a driving and effective force in past election cycles with its spending, which amounted to roughly $100 million promoting candidates and policies in 2014 alone.
With past issues, such as health care reform, AFP’s strategy has been clear-cut: full-throated opposition. But making the case for Republicans on issues of income inequality will call for more nuance, Phillips said.
“Part of it’s cultural, so it’s not even necessarily making it an issue battle,” he said. “A lot of it is extolling the virtues of a system that’s lifted more people out of poverty than anything else in the history of mankind.”
Republicans make the case that that system is a free market with minimal government interference. Staring down the same problems stemming from income inequality, Democrats have called for the government to set policies including a higher minimum wage, free or reduced-tuition college, and shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.
For now, as AFP considers how it will begin to tackle this debate, Phillips acknowledges that Democrats have the upper hand. But, looking toward the presidential race in 2016, there is a sense of urgency.
“If in 2016 they have that advantage,” Phillips said, “it could be deadly to the Republican nominee.”