I, probably like most people, didn't pay all that much attention to Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst's Republican response to the State of the Union address Tuesday. I was writing on Obama's speech, it was late, and, as we have written before, these responses -- no matter which party is delivering them -- usually stink.
But, this morning I read through Ernst's speech and came across a line that Republicans across the country should start stealing today if they want to win the White House in 2016. Here it is: "You don’t need to come from wealth or privilege to make a difference. You just need the freedom to dream big, and a whole lot of hard work."
If you are looking for a simple, digestible -- and at least potentially persuasive -- slogan for Republicans to adopt as they try to expand the party heading into the next national election, that's it (or damn close).
As has been written to death, Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election to President Obama in large part because he was effectively cast as Mr. Moneybags come to life -- an out-of-touch plutocrat with little knowledge of or care for people who had less than he. For me, the single most striking number from 2012 exit polling was that 53 percent of voters said that Romney's policies would favor the rich, while just 34 percent said they would most benefit the middle class; 2 percent said the poor would benefit most. (By contrast, 44 percent said Obama's policies would favor the middle class, 31 percent the poor and 10 percent the rich.)
Here's a broader look at how people voted by income in 2012, courtesy of exit polling:
Romney did quite well among families whose income was $50,000 or more. But below that number -- the lower end of the middle class and below -- he struggled mightily. (Defining how much money you need to make -- or not make -- in order to qualify as "middle class" is a point of considerable debate.)
It is to that aspirational class, the people for whom the possibility of achieving the American dream is fading, that Republicans need to talk more directly and effectively. And Ernst's message as articulated above does that. It places Ernst -- and by extension Republicans -- as someone who genuinely understands what it's like to strive and struggle. Another line from earlier in her speech is powerful on this point:
"For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about. We felt them every day."
If Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton -- and all signs suggest they will -- Republicans could well have the opening they need to talk to these voters. Clinton is an uncomfortable populist (to be kind) and has already made a number of unforced errors when talking about her wealth in relation to the relative affluence of the country. Whoever winds up being the Republican nominee -- and I am presuming, for the sake of this discussion, that Romney won't run -- should immediately adopt Ernst's language when it comes to talking about what the Republican party is and and wants to be.
Simply adopting the rhetoric -- if there aren't policy prescriptions to go with it -- won't be enough, obviously. But, Ernst is sounding the right note. Other Republicans should start singing from the same songbook.