As this week marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, several prominent members of the Republican Party have taken the opportunity to unfurl their own antipoverty plans, taking the criticism of seeming a detached plutocratic party to heart. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida spoke under the auspices of AEI on Wednesday, laying out a plan to devolve much of the existing federal antipoverty infrastructure to the states, and shift it to wage subsidies. Paul Ryan used his Kristol lecture at AEI last year to call for a conservative antipoverty agenda. Rand Paul has proposed economic freedom zones in downtrodden areas like Detroit, slashing federal taxes and regulations to make investment in such places more attractive. Not too long ago, the GOP’s nominated standard bearer was easily tattooed with his own phrase “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” so this would seem a manifest improvement. Byron York is not so sure, however, that Republicans aren’t overshooting their mark.
As he tells the story, bridging the compassion gap doesn’t need poverty talk. When President Obama thrashed Romney the last time around, he almost never talked about poverty. Instead, he hit home, in every speech, remark, and invocation, the 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.
isn’t that what Republicans should be doing, too — focusing on winning back those anxious middle-class voters who abandoned the party in 2008 and 2012? … But now, instead, comes a high-profile Republican campaign on poverty — a campaign launched without the party’s internal agreement on a specific anti-poverty agenda. … the new 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.
When nearly 90 percent of Americans describe themselves as belonging to some part of the middle class, York’s criticism has a lot of merit. Yet it’s worth remembering the context of Romney’s “not concerned” quote:
I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor — we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich — they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.
Romney campaigned on and addressed the burdens of the middle class, just like every American politician who has an ounce of sense left in him. Yet when election day came, and the exit polls were released, for voters to whom the number one candidate quality was “cares about people like me,” Obama crushed Romney 81 – 18. Romney won every other quality, handily, but the perception of the disconnect killed him. No matter how strongly he messaged middle class, he just never had the credibility in voters eyes for it to matter.
What this week’s antipoverty speeches, and Mike Lee’s excellent one from November, can be seen as, then, is public policy penance. They won’t be the bread and butter of everyday campaigning, nor will they bridge any perceived compassion gap by themselves. But for a party that has spent its rhetorical time tied up in the entrepreneurial aspirations of the builder class, staring poverty in the face and summoning real, conservative policy solutions could be just the sort of retraining needed to finally escape the vestiges of Reagan-era thinking.
Mike Lee, as is his wont of late, has been doing some of the most interesting work on this. In that November speech, he said “let’s be clear about one thing. The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Weaving his poverty talk of the selfsame texture as his broader conservative communitarianism, Lee integrated American history, built by the dual institutions of a free market economy and a voluntary civil society, with an understanding that “we proved to the world that freedom doesn’t mean ‘you’re on your own.’ Freedom means ‘we’re all in this together.’ The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation ‘of plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.’”
That’s a message conservatives should be able to sell.