Conservative Republicans spurned pleas from some potential presidential contenders this weekend for a new appeal to America’s working class, highlighting an internal disagreement over income inequality that has become an early dividing line in the party’s 2016 primary.
The 1,200 conservatives who gathered in Iowa for a political cattle call on Saturday cheered, whooped and applauded enthusiastically at speakers’ sharp criticisms of President Barack Obama’s response to Islamist terrorism, signature healthcare reforms and executive action on immigration.
Yet calls from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Santorum, a former US senator for Pennsylvania, for the party to devote itself to poorer Americans who have been left behind by the country’s steady economic recovery, often met with silence in a theatre in Des Moines.
“We need to be the party of the worker,” said Santorum, to no applause. He went on to criticise an emphasis on entrepreneurs that became the theme of 2012’s Republican National Convention, where Obama was repeatedly attacked for his perceived claim that bosses “didn’t build” their companies.
“What percentage of Americans own their own business?” Santorum asked, before answering: “Less than 10.” Republicans continue to focus their election campaigns on this minority, said the former senator, and “then we wonder why we don’t win”.
However, the notion that Republicans should prioritise income inequality was ridiculed by economic right-wingers such as Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who won the party’s Iowa caucuses in 2008 and retains a wide support base in the state that has the first say in nominating US presidential candidates.
“Sometimes, I think the greatest challenge we face economically is intelligence inequality,” said Huckabee, to widespread applause and laughter from the audience. He added: “We will never be able to build a strong economy when we punish productivity.”
The cool response from the Freedom Summit, a day-long conservative rally convened by Steve King, an Iowa congressman beloved by the Tea Party, came at the end of a week in which Obama made the case for what he called “middle-class economics” in his State of the Union address in Washington. Republicans in Congress immediately dismissed Obama’s plan for higher taxes on top earners to fund relief for poorer Americans.
It also followed criticism directed by some conservatives at Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, former governors of Massachusetts and Florida who have in recent weeks urged similarly for more attention to be paid to poverty and wage stagnation. “When I think of Romney now I think of one word: Democrat,” said David Pearson, a supporter of Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Romney and Bush, who did not attend Saturday’s rally, were dismissed from the stage by several speakers. Bill O’Brien, a New Hampshire legislator and a favourite of Tea Party activists, suggested they were RINOs – Republicans in name only.
References to Romney’s healthcare reforms in Massachusetts, which were a model for Obama’s national overhaul, and Bush’s support for the controversial Common Core education standards, prompted some boos and hisses from the crowd.
Addressing the audience in Des Moines later in the afternoon, Christie struck a sharply different tone to earlier speakers such as Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Dr Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and bestselling author, both of whom insisted that the US remained a meritocracy where anyone with talent and work ethic could thrive.
“There is economic stagnation in this country, but there is also an overwhelming feeling that for your family it is just not possible to get ahead,” said Christie, who was already viewed by some in attendance as a moderate worthy of suspicion.
Lamenting a multiple-year stagnation in the median income of American workers, Christie urged Republicans to assemble a coalition “that is comprised at its core of a proud but underserved and under-represented working class in this country”, again prompting silence from the rows of voters.
Christie called for “every domestic policy we advance, every decision we make” to be targeted at improving the lives of middle-class and poorer households, explaining that “the rich are doing fine”.
“We don’t demonise the wealthy, as so many folks in the Democratic party do,” said the New Jersey governor. “But nor should we cater to the wealthy at the expense of our middle income workers and working poor, who are the backbone of every American community.”
After a beat, a few hesitant claps broke out on the theatre’s lower level. Others slowly joined in.
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