As President Obama traveled the country Wednesday promoting a new and more populist economic agenda, Republicans were racing to prove that they, too, have a plan to alleviate middle-class anxiety.
In the past few days alone, three senior GOP senators unveiled an alternative to Obama’s health-care law that offers a conservative vision for covering the uninsured, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) summoned experts to a Capitol Hill hearing to discuss new ways to help the poor, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed making childless adults eligible for a lucrative tax credit currently available only to working families.
The challenge for Republicans is convincing voters that their newfound concern is sincere. After three years of budget cuts and fiscal crises that badly damaged the GOP brand, voters not only rejected presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 but also have told pollsters that they view Republicans generally as indifferent to middle-class interests.
That must change if the party hopes for a different outcome in the 2014 midterm elections and beyond, senior Republicans say.
“We are going to have to offer an affirmative platform in areas from job training and education to entitlements and the social safety net to employment law and environmental regulation,” said Oren Cass, domestic policy director to the Romney campaign, “instead of just acknowledging problems that liberals are talking about and then criticizing big-government responses.”
Ideas are rapidly percolating among Republicans in both chambers of Congress. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has urged more competition in the public school system, pushing vouchers and charters to give poor children a better chance of climbing the economic ladder. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has promoted an expansion of the child tax credit to provide additional support to low-income families. And Ryan has touted government grants for businesses to train the workers they need.
For now, those ideas remain just ideas, rough sketches without formal legislation. People in both parties say the prospect of either side pushing significant legislation through Congress in an election year is slim.
Still, they hold out the possibility for more-limited agreement. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, for example, Obama co-opted Rubio’s idea, saying that “I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio” on the need to expand the working-family credit, known as the earned-income tax credit.
As they cast about for ideas, Republicans are struggling to find policies that match the simplicity and gut appeal of such Democratic proposals as raising the minimum wage without violating core conservative principles by increasing spending or interfering with market forces. Many lawmakers are turning to conservative think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute.
Early on, AEI began urging the party away from sterile discussions about debt and deficit and lower taxes toward a kinder, gentler display of concern for an American public still smarting from the Great Recession. In the wake of the economic crisis, it has been tough for Republicans to think outside the comforting ideological box of the Reagan administration, when conservatives rode to the rescue, said Jim Pethokoukis, an AEI blogger and columnist.
“It’s very easy for a party that did well in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan to look at these problems and be caught in a sort of amber,” Pethokoukis said. “It’s always January 1981. You’ve always just beat Jimmy Carter. Tax rates are 70 percent. Inflation is in double digits. That still hovers over the Republican Party.”
AEI President Arthur Brooks has consulted with numerous GOP politicians about rewriting their political playbook to focus on rising income inequality and declining economic opportunity. Among AEI’s policy prescriptions is using the tax code to help promote a cohesive family unit, which economists say could go a long way toward improving the lives of low-income Americans.
“Over the past few years, [the political right] was all about products and not purpose,” Brooks said. “It was using a product line that was limited government, lowering regulation, lowering taxes, lowering spending, lowering debt.”
“If you’re a normal American and not a wonk, what do you hear from a movement that says lower taxes, less regulation, less spending, in the middle of a recession?” he said. “You say their purpose is fighting against things.”
Other conservative policy analysts are focused on historically high levels of long-term unemployment. Some have even committed the conservative heresy of advocating more government spending to help out-of-work Americans, for example by using taxpayer dollars to subsidize salaries, provide relocation assistance or directly create jobs.
Such ideas have met with stern disapproval from more-traditional conservatives, who view smaller government, lower taxes and a strong defense as the three pillars of GOP orthodoxy.
“There’s always a critique from parts of the party that we focus too much on cutting spending and limiting government, but those things are a central part of the Republican Party platform,” said Barney Keller, communications director for the Club for Growth, which has long pushed the GOP to the right on fiscal issues.
Liberals, meanwhile, are questioning the new focus on the poor, noting that GOP budgets propose to slash spending on the social safety net.
“I think it’s largely messaging,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. “You can’t talk about cutting important programs by huge amounts and think you can have an effective anti-poverty agenda.”
Still, senior Republicans are deadly serious about developing a conservative agenda for the middle class before they next face the voters. After the catastrophe of 2012, they say, they are determined not to make the same mistakes with control of the Senate on the line.
“The experience of the 2012 election increased the level of interest that a lot of Republicans have in some heterodox ideas,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, a visiting fellow at AEI and senior editor of the conservative National Review magazine.
“Now,” he said, “there is a kind of urgency.”