WASHINGTON — Prominent Republicans are working to recast the party’s message about tackling poverty and boosting the middle class amid concerns that a relentless focus on the troubles of Obamacare will not be enough to guarantee electoral success.
The move seeks to address widespread public anxiety about the uneven economic recovery, a topic that Democrats have largely had to themselves in recent months. But even as party strategists push for a higher-profile approach, conservative lawmakers face a difficult challenge in crafting a message that appeals to middle-income and working-class voters while maintaining support among the party base.
It’s the latest acknowledgment that Republicans’ traditional emphasis on fiscal austerity and smaller government — while popular among grass-roots conservatives and gospel to much of their House majority — has been difficult to sell among the broader electorate. As Republicans approach a midterm election in which they hope to recapture the Senate, they are increasingly worried about being portrayed by Democrats as hard-hearted and unconcerned about the plight of poor and struggling Americans.
On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a likely 2016 contender for the GOP presidential nomination, jumped into the fray, delivering a speech in which he called for a “fundamental change” in how government combats poverty by shifting responsibility for most existing federal assistance programs to the states.
Speaking from the Senate’s Lyndon B. Johnson Room on the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty, Rubio argued that the government should not only work to close the gap between rich and poor, but also focus on improving economic mobility to lift families out of poverty and expand the middle class.
“Our current government programs offer, at best, only a partial solution,” Rubio said. “They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it.”
For conservatives like Rubio, a key challenge will be reconciling a call for a greater focus on the needy with Republican efforts to scale back existing programs designed to assist low-income Americans, such as food stamps, and the party’s opposition to efforts to increase the minimum wage.
A prominent liberal group on Wednesday said it was “unfathomable” that Rubio would give a speech on poverty a day after he voted against advancing a Senate bill to extend unemployment insurance for 1.3 million Americans, whose monthly benefits stopped last month.
Republicans learned about the risks of appearing callous to poor and middle-class concerns during the 2012 presidential race, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney appeared to write off the 47% of the nation who he said did not pay income taxes and believed they were entitled to government support.
Fred Malek, a prominent Republican donor and advisor, said income inequality was fast becoming “one of the great issues of this generation” and warned that Republicans needed to tackle it.
“We need a ‘man on the moon’ approach to this,” he said. “There is a 47% that don’t pay taxes, but we don’t criticize them. We want to lift all boats. We want to provide them opportunities to rise above that.”
But Malek, who has worked closely with Republican governors, said congressional Republicans may not be the best messengers for the party on poverty issues.
“What we’ve seen is stagnation here in Washington,” he said. “Yet in state capitals, particularly those that are run by the 29 Republican governors, we’ve seen a lot of reforms — a lot of action.”
As Rubio was unveiling his plan on Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivered an address across town on the promise of charter schools to “break this vicious cycle of poverty.” He took aim at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been seen as a flag-bearer for Democrats’ increasingly populist tone, warning that the mayor’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools could “devastate the growth of education opportunity.”
The dueling events, and other recent moves by key party figures, suggest agreement on broad principles, but still no consensus about what specific policies Republicans should champion.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a leader of the party’s more libertarian wing, has visited economically depressed communities like Detroit and proposed what he calls “economic freedom zones” that would offer reduced tax rates. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) unveiled as part of his poverty agenda last fall a significant tax code overhaul that includes a $2,500-per-child tax credit.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another potential presidential hopeful, parted with many of his fellow Republicans on Wednesday by signing a Democratic-backed law that would allow immigrants in the state illegally to qualify for in-state tuition rates. Christie argued it was common sense for the government to help immigrant children obtain college educations in order to maximize its investment.
On Thursday, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), architect of the party’s spartan budget plans, will address his own ideas for tackling poverty. The former vice presidential nominee, a Catholic, has praised Pope Francis for “breathing new life into the fight against poverty.”
It’s not the first time Republicans have waded into the issue. In his 2000 presidential campaign, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush espoused “compassionate conservatism” as a way to distinguish himself from congressional Republicans who had been seen as overly antagonistic toward President Clinton. Bush called for a more focused approach to poverty to create a “government that does a few things and does them well.”
For some Republicans, the focus on poverty serves to buttress their long-held view that President Obama’s economic policies have failed and that his administration should be faulted for the economic difficulties many Americans still face.
“The mere fact that we’re talking about extending unemployment benefits again is a proclamation that the economic policies of this administration are failing,” said Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), who is leading a group of House conservatives advancing their own anti-poverty initiative, including a proposal that food stamp recipients be required to find work.
But congressional Democrats made a stand Wednesday to preserve the mantle of advocates for the poor. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip, said Johnson’s War on Poverty had helped reduce infant mortality and boosted college graduation rates, among other successes.
“If we are to make serious progress in the War on Poverty in the years to come, it will have to be as a result of both parties working together to prioritize economic opportunity and upward mobility, not by telling the most vulnerable Americans that they’ll have to fend for themselves,” he said.