As Republicans marks the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty by groping for a more compelling anti-poverty message, Byron York wonders about the political wisdom of this half-formed focus on the poor:
… the sparseness of the new Republican anti-poverty agenda has led some critics to charge that it’s just talk, that these Republicans, some of whom are planning to run for president, are discussing poverty to soften their image and re-position the GOP as a more compassionate party. But that is where the Republicans’ anti-poverty move makes the least sense.
President Obama almost never talked about poverty in the last election. He just didn’t mention it. Instead, in speech after speech, rally after rally, commercial after commercial, Obama and his fellow Democrats targeted the great American middle class, wracked by economic anxieties and concerned about maintaining its style of life in a terrible economic downturn. For Democrats, the election was middle class, middle class, middle class.
According to a word cloud created by the New York Times to track the use of various terms in speeches at the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions, Democrats used the phrase “middle class” far more than Republicans — 47 times for Democrats to seven times for the GOP.
… the new [Republican] strategy ignores the (at least rhetorical) lesson of the Democrats’ recent successes: When it comes to winning votes, it’s all about the middle class.
This is a reasonable point, but James Pethokoukis makes some reasonable points in response:
… Maybe Candidate Obama didn’t talk about poverty, but the GOP arguably has a bigger lift on the issue in the public’s mind. For instance: A HuffPost/YouGov poll from last September found 51% of Americans thought the GOP was most interested in helping the rich, 28% the middle class, 7% the poor. By contrast, 28% thought Democrats were most interested in helping the rich, 27%, the middle class, 25% the poor. Politically, it doesn’t seem a stretch to think that if more of those anxious Americans thought the GOP was more concerned about the poor, they might also believe the GOP was more concerned about both the income security and economic mobility of the middle-class.
… It’s not like there isn’t overlap between the two agendas: Education and worker training reform, reforming unemployment insurance, a pro-family tax policy, pro-consumer healthcare reform are some items which would have broad appeal. The GOP should not be afraid to talk about the three buckets — as outlined recently by Brooking’s Richard Reeves — of (rent seeking) inequality, mobility, and raising living standards. They actually go together pretty well.
Here’s a related way to think about it: If you were to build a rhetorical frame around some of the better policy ideas floating around on the right-of-center these days — from Mike Lee’s family-friendly tax plan to the James Capretta Obamacare alternative to the kind of unemployment-fighting agenda A.E.I.’s Michael Strain outlines in the latest issue of National Affairs — it probably wouldn’t be neatly divided into a “message on poverty” and a “message for the middle class.” Instead, it would talk about how this new right-of-center agenda would offer the same kind of thing to Americans below the poverty line as it does to Americans anxiously holding on to their place in the middle class: Not a conservatism of “compassion” (that Bush-era frame was always a mistake, even when the substance was decent), but a conservatism of respect, in which benefits and tax credits are tied to effort, responsibility, family, work, in ways that apply up and down the income ladder.
Thus Strain’s relocation assistance: If you’re willing to relocate for a job, we’ll help — but you have to make the leap. Thus Capretta’s catastrophic voucher: If you can’t afford health insurance, we’ll help cover something basic — the rest is up to you. Thus the larger child tax credit: If you’re sacrificing to raise a kid, we’ll make the work-life balance easier — but what happens then is up to you. In each case, the right-of-center proposal would offer a form of limited and/or conditional support to people facing one of a range of contemporary challenges — childrearing, joblessness, health care costs and/or a lack insurance — that can cut across lines of income and class. And the political framing, in turn, would link those policies to clear social goods — mobility, security, work, family — that likewise are sought by people making $18,000 a year and $50,000 a year alike.
Or at least that’s my rough strategic take on this question. But really, the most important thing is to actually have an agenda, which is why at this point I’m not all that concerned about whether Republicans are talking about fighting poverty or the middle class or both: I just want them to be talking up and trying out policy ideas, the way Lee has done and figures like Marco Rubio seem to want to do, that aren’t just out of the predictable playbook the party sang from in 2012. For now, frame the ideas however you want, just get them out there and start arguing about them, and don’t worry just yet about what kind of buzzwords you’ll deploy on the convention stage in 2016. Sufficient unto the day the progress thereof.