GOP jettisons the jobless

What does the GOP have against the unemployed?

Not content for history to cast them as the party that cost 8 million Americans their jobs, the GOP has spent 17 months fighting to deny benefits to the jobless.

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First, Republicans opposed President Obama’s economic recovery plan, which provided relief to millions who found themselves out of work after 2008’s fiscal meltdown. In that instance, politics came first. Handing the new president a bipartisan victory on such a crucial measure (despite the benefit to struggling families and the desperately needed boost for an ailing economy) could anger the GOP’s right-wing base. And despite the fact that a third of the stimulus was directed to the unemployed, Republicans could take political cover by shifting attention to infrastructure improvements, portraying them as “pork-barrel” spending.

But this year, Republicans’ indifference to laid-off workers was more plainly exposed. When Democrats tried to retain benefits for 1.2 million Americans, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) blocked the effort, telling one pleading colleague: “Tough s--t.” Some attributed Bunning’s stubbornness to his anger at the national party’s refusal to back his reelection bid.

But he wasn’t alone. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) threatened to stop the measure unless Washington agreed to cut estate taxes for the ultra-rich. This was driven in part by Kyl’s
fealty to the GOP’s most cherished constituency, and he used the opportunity to push a plan that handed an average tax cut of $3.5 million to estates worth over $20 million. But Kyl’s position also reflects a philosophical difference with Democrats. During the debate over jobless benefits, he warned that “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.”

As misguided as Kyl’s rationale is, it’s not unique within his party. Last month, Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle (Nev.) told a local reporter: “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job. [W]e have put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.”

Angle has a history of saying what most Republicans keep to themselves. In a recent radio interview, Angle bragged: “My grandfather wouldn’t even take his Social Security check because he said he was not up for welfare.”

Sharing Angle’s penchant for the provocative is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who derided unemployment benefits as a political “pet project.” GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul (Ky.) advocates what he calls a “tough love” approach to laid-off workers, saying they must make do with whatever position is available, no matter how low the pay. “As bad as it sounds, ultimately we do have to sometimes accept a wage that’s less than we had at our previous job,” said Paul.

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The American people are more empathetic. According to a June poll sponsored by the National Employment Law Project, 67 percent of Americans support an extension of unemployment benefits. Perhaps newly aware of the possible political repercussions, Republicans have been more careful in spinning their opposition to aid for the jobless. This month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was blocking benefits only because the Democratic proposal wasn’t “paid for.”

Whatever their latest rationale, Republicans have been relentless in their opposition to helping the unemployed. This November, voters just might make the GOP pay for that.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.