How Trump is helping Democrats

This past month has been a time of obituaries for unsuccessful Republican presidential bids. But little if any explicit attention has been given to one of the most significant deaths of this year's presidential cycle, one that has profound consequences not just for 2016 but for the fundamental shape of the political debate in the country going forward.

After 120 years of exercising a powerful influence on the voters — since McKinley beat Bryan in 1896 — the argument that candidates who campaign for a more equal distribution of wealth are engaging in impermissible "class warfare" is not only dead; there is a competition as to who can most effectively keep it buried.

Barney Frank
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Barney Frank
"The death of the political argument that a focus on the distribution of resources is destabilizing class warfare will be seen fairly soon as one of the most significant political developments of our time."

The death was sudden and unexpected, and the cause was the head-on collision with economic reality of a belief system that had been badly weakened by the crisis-induced shock of 2008. That it was largely unanticipated is evidenced by the fact that almost all commentators, analysts and experts, myself included, have been surprised by the strength of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Despite their sharp differences, neither would be doing nearly as well in a political universe in which the fear of excessively disrupting the working of our market driven economy could be successfully invoked to persuade voters who would benefit from redistributive policies that they would be better off if they were rejected.

With little warning, the assertion that reducing inequality would hinder economic growth has lost the political power it has had for decades.

Proof of its suddenness comes from comparing this year's campaign rhetoric to that of any previous year in recent memory. The absence of any support for even the mildest form of redistributive policies, from Republicans up through Mitt Romney, was of course to be expected. But neither has insistence on a sustained attack on inequality come from any post-FDR nominee since that time and not from him after 1936. Barack Obama's most notable foray into explicitly advocating redistribution was not only tentative; it triggered a disappointingly successful counter attack from "Joe-whose-name-was-not-Joe-and-was-not-a-plumber" dressed up in a populist disguise.

Why this sudden, complete collapse of the ability of the defenders of the economic status quo to win any debate about fairness by de-legitimizing the very notion as "class warfare?"

The answer is in two parts.

First, the massive market misbehavior that gave us the crash of 2008 thoroughly discredited the status quo against which the "war" was being waged.

Second, once there was no longer a presumption that an economic system free from the distractions of worries about inequality would best serve the common good, reality bit. That is, looking at the facts without any predisposition in favor of untrammeled capitalism, voters see no reason to tolerate a system in which increased national wealth goes overwhelmingly to a very few.

Moreover, the particular circumstances of this year's election setting not only obstructed what had previously been the effective Republican response of "class warfare" to complaints about the unfair distribution of income, their need to construct a critique of the economy in the Obama years has pushed them to join in noting that most earners have seen too little gain from increases in the overall GDP.

With America growing faster than any other developed nation, and with unemployment dropping sharply, the only effective attack they can mount is to note the absence of significant wage gains for most workers. Given the good overall economic performance of the economy in the past few years, all but the most conservative have added a focus on how the proceeds of growth are shared to their previous insistence that the rising tide will lift all boats. (I did read recently a Wall Street Journal denunciation of "class warriors." It already seemed anachronistic).

In fact, those — again, myself included — who overestimated the negative reaction that would be triggered by Bernie Sanders and his self-professed socialism did so in substantial part because we underestimated the American people's post-2008 disenchantment with unrestrained capitalism.

What does this death of the "class warfare" bogeyman mean for our political culture, this year and after? In both cases it is very good news for the Democrats, although with some complication in this year's race and the strength of the Sanders candidacy. I continue to believe that he will be weaker in November against Trump or Cruz than Hillary Clinton.

But even in that case, the ability of Democratic candidates across the board to denounce excessive inequality without losing votes for engaging in class warfare will put them in a much better position to capitalize on voter anger than their opponents. Republicans prepared to talk about the problem of inequality face a dilemma: their ideology and the strong feelings of their own base constrains them from promising to do anything to alleviate the problem.

How does a Republican plausibly campaign in part on a pledge to reduce excessive inequality while opposing if every single public policy that does anything to achieve it?

Three examples drive home the point.

First, the Republican presidential competition to reduce taxes of the wealthiest will not serve whoever wins very well in a general election in which most voters are already angry because they believe the rich pay too little.

Second, I cannot think of any more advantageous position for a Democrat than to be running against a candidate who tries to convince voters of her concern that working people have been unfairly treated while opposing an increase in the minimum wage.

Finally, this new and forceful rejection of the view that economic decisions should be made largely to advance the overall economy with little regard for distributional effects is a far more serious obstacle to passage of the legation to effectuate the trade agreement than many now recognize. It now seems unlikely to be a presidential issue. But in congressional races, the great majority of Republicans who voted to enact it will be on the defensive against anti-TPP Democrats — as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has already figured out.

The death of the political argument that a focus on the distribution of resources is destabilizing class warfare will be seen fairly soon as one of the most significant political developments of our time.

Commentary by Barney Frank, chair of the House Financial-Services Committee from 2007 to 2011, during which time Congress enacted the TARP program and the financial-reform bill known as Dodd-Frank. Follow him on Twitter @BarneyFrank.

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