Potential Candidates Emphasize Policy Prescriptions to Address Concerns of Poor, Middle Class
Several Republicans eyeing presidential bids in 2016 are tackling policy questions not typically identified as conservative priorities, including wage stagnation and aid for the poor, an early bid to address a political weakness that helped sink the party’s last White House nominee.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio devoted his new book, “American Dreams,” to revamping programs for the poor and middle class. Ohio Gov. John Kasich will use his inaugural address Monday to renew his call to help “people in the shadows.” And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush launched his political-action committee last week by spotlighting income inequality and those who believe “the American dream is now out of their reach.”
For Republicans circling the 2016 race, the focus on struggling segments of the population is a response of sorts to the 2012 contest, when the party’s nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney , struggled to present himself as an empathetic figure. Many Republicans considering bids this time seem set on forging a new path, one that stays true to conservative beliefs but with a firmer eye on seeking potential solutions to address Americans’ continued frustration with the economy.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has proposed tax breaks to spur investment in impoverished communities, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, in his own inauguration, promised students a quality education, “regardless of background or birthright.” Even Mr. Romney, who told donors last week he is considering another bid, has told allies he would like to address poverty and stagnant wages.
In 2012, Mr. Romney was maligned, even by some Republicans, for referring derisively to the 47% of Americans “who are dependent upon government.” That November, President Barack Obama soundly beat Mr. Romney on the question of which candidate voters believed “cares about people like me,” according to exit polls.
Since then, few Republicans have done more to reboot the party’s image than Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan , Mr. Romney’s running mate. Last summer, Mr. Ryan outlined proposals to rework federal antipoverty programs, including consolidating many under a single funding stream and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.
A group of conservative scholars, under the banner of the YG Network, a group affiliated with GOP leaders in the House, published a collection of essays last year to address middle-class concerns, from K-12 education to lower-cost health care. “One of the weaknesses Republicans have had during the Obama years is that they have struggled at times to talk to the middle class, particularly how they can boost low-wage workers,” said Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, who outlined a new vision for government in the essays’ introduction.
“Republicans have talked about much of this stuff for a while—it’s not new—but framing it around the theme of economic opportunity is somewhat new,” Mr. Levin said.
Mr. Bush highlighted the theme of economic insecurity in rolling out his new PAC, citing the gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. He has touched on this theme in pitches to wealthy donors.
“Too many of the poor have lost hope that a path to a better life is within their grasp,” his website reads.
In “American Dreams,” which is published Tuesday, Mr. Rubio outlines policy proposals to address the economic anxiety of the poor and middle class. He calls for significantly increasing the child tax credit, an idea hatched in conjunction with Utah Sen. Mike Lee. He lays out a plan to let employers pay for their workers’ college tuition. And he wants to give states more flexibility in how they use federal dollars on poverty programs, giving them the chance to keep any savings. He also wants to replace the Earned Income Tax Credit with a monthly tax credit for earners who make below $40,000 a year.
Democrats and liberal groups have taken aim at some of these proposals. Robert Greenstein, president of the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said Mr. Rubio’s proposal to expand the child-tax credit would, in his view, help the middle class and more-affluent families, while allowing aid to working-poor families to lapse.
“It is misleading advertising to profess to express concern and offer help to struggling low-income families, while actually making their plight, and that of their children, worse,” Mr. Greenstein said.
Mr. Rubio frames his book’s policy prescriptions through the lens of people who would be affected, including the head of a Florida food bank who offers clients free haircuts and financial counsel.
“I like to see them focusing on these issues, which were not traditionally Republican issues,” said Christine Miller, director of the United Food Bank in Plant City, Fla. “That gives me great hope, as a person who works directly with the most needy.”
These aren’t new themes for Mr. Rubio, who has made economic mobility a plank since his days in the state legislature. Before Mr. Rubio became speaker of the state House, he unveiled 100 policy ideas for the state, an early template for “American Dreams.”
Mr. Rubio, the 43-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, sprinkles the book with references to economic hurdles that his parents and grandparents faced.
He writes about moving home to attend law school and about the sound his dad’s keys made as he returned home late at night from work as a bartender. He also takes his own party to task for ignoring these concerns.
“Republicans haven’t been creative or innovative enough in offering solutions,” he writes.