By Niall Stanage - 01/20/14 06:00 AM EST
That’s the message conservative intellectuals and strategists have for the Republican Party as it faces an assault from President Obama and Democrats on issues resonant with struggling voters such as the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits.
Some conservatives fear that the party has failed to make its case on how its policies can improve the lives of less well-off voters. This, in turn, makes them vulnerable to being dismissed as the party of the rich, and having deaf ears turned to their arguments.
“Too many conservatives think that the benefits of their economic policies are self-explanatory; they make such sense to them. But they’re not,” said Kate O’Beirne, the longtime National Review writer who now works as a consultant.
“It’s too abstract. They might say, ‘I’m against excessive regulation.’ Well, how does it hurt the individual? It’s not some abstract burden. It lowers wages for workers and raises costs for consumers.”
There are a number of signs of Republicans trying to strengthen their flank on issues relating to poorer people in particular.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) has put forth a plan to help alleviate poverty by consolidating funding for many federal programs and then devolving power for how those funds are spent to the states.
Other prominent Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have been trying to get the party onto the front foot when it comes to explaining how its policies might help people at all strata of society.
But more needs to be done, some conservatives argue.
“Republicans trumpet ‘free enterprise’, ‘personal responsibility’ like a college fight-song but they never explain how it is going to better the lives of people outside the conservative echo chamber,” strategist Ford O’Connell says. “It’s a major problem.”
Strategists like O’Connell worry that this tendency is putting their party behind the eight ball in presidential elections, making it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win the electoral college.
Exit polls show that when voters were asked in 2012 directly which candidate would be better able to handle the economy, they went for Republican Mitt Romney, albeit by the tightest of margins, 49 percent to 48 percent.
But when asked “who is more in touch with people like you?,” President Obama had a ten-point advantage, 53 percent to 43 percent. Sixty percent of voters with an income of $50,000 or less voted to reelect the president, as against just 38 percent who chose Romney.
Obama is now pressing Congress to pass an extension of federal unemployment benefits and to hike the minimum wage, one of several economic issues where Democrats argue public opinion favors them.
A Quinnipiac Poll earlier this month indicated that 71 percent of registered voters supported raising the minimum wage. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in December put the number slightly lower at 66 percent of adults — but that figure was still more than double the 31 percent who were opposed.
Republicans are, as a general rule, opposed to increasing the minimum wage. “Why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked rhetorically late last year.
Still, some GOP consultants worry that a policy like raising the minimum wage is more effective in attracting voters than are complicated conservative arguments.
Dan Judy, a strategist whose firm North Star Opinion Research has included Rubio among its clients, noted that there is considerable support among academics for the idea that cutting taxes on the most well-off people would boost the economy generally.
But, he added, “for middle-class voters, it’s not that they don’t understand that; it’s that they don’t really care. What they are worried about is the taxes they have to pay or the job that they lost. They don’t always connect it to the idea that the policies that help people at the top help us all. That’s not an easy argument to make, even if it’s not necessarily untrue.”
The debate is intensifying at an intriguing time. The midterms elections are just over nine months away, unemployment has declined but is still at a historically high rate of 6.7 percent, and wages have stagnated for many workers.
Republicans believe opposition to the healthcare law will be the wind behind their sails this year.
“In terms of income inequality versus the failure of ObamaCare, there is no doubt that Republicans are on the right track,” said longtime GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, adding that the Affordable Care Act’s problems “would likely trump the income inequality argument.”
Yet Boehner this week also said his conference is confident the economy will be a strong issue for Republicans. He pointed to GOP polling that shows more voters now blame Obama for the state of the economy than President George W. Bush, a finding that suggests frustration with the slow recovery.
Liberals are confident that the rise of DeBlasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) is a sign of things to come, but not everyone is so sure.
One veteran observer of New York politics, Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs, believes that issues of inequality have found a new life since the Occupy Wall Street movement arose. But he is reluctant to extrapolate much from that in terms of the national political picture.
“De Blasio caught that zeitgeist in a sense,” he said. “But there is a lot of wishing and hoping on the part of the left and progressives. When they point to de Blasio and to Elizabeth Warren, I point to everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line and all the way across the heartland to California. There ain’t no progressive moment.”