How conservatives can win the debate and the White House

Approximately 24 million viewers tuned into the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, an increase of 750 percent from the number who watched the first GOP debate four years ago. On Wednesday, millions of Americans will tune in again as Republicans take the stage at the Reagan Library for the second debate. Republicans have another opportunity to address the challenges facing America, and conservative candidates must make full use of it. After nearly seven years of having the White House neglect their anxieties, America’s middle class wants leaders to acknowledge and assuage their concerns with practical solutions and an optimistic, conservative vision for the future.

Last year, a CNN/ORC poll revealed that nearly 60 percent of respondents agree that “the American dream has become impossible for most people to achieve.” According to a poll commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation, 75 percent of respondents say it is harder today for Americans to achieve a middle-class lifestyle than it was in the past. And nearly four in five believe “it is more likely for middle-class people to fall into the lower rungs of the economic ladder than it is for those in lower economic classes to rise into the middle.”

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Many candidates at the Cleveland debate discussed the challenges facing middle-class America and their ideas to address them. The dialogue, however, must expand, and conservatives must address those concerns in greater depth. The good news is that conservatives have answers to those issues, including the principled, practical solutions detailed in Conservative Reform Network’s Room To Grow projects.

For example, middle-class Americans value higher education and continue to view it as integral to climbing the ladder of opportunity. A recent poll indicated that 47 percent of respondents identify a college education as most important in achieving the American dream. They worry, though, about the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the burden of student loan debt.

Liberals have responded with plans for expensive government programs with the promise of patently unrealistic results. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonImpeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter MORE recently unveiled a proposal for debt-free college that would cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars but would do nothing to contain the core problem – tuition costs that continue to rise well ahead of inflation.

Room To Grow contributor Andrew P. Kelly notes the current system of student loans provides colleges with little incentive to contain their tuition increases. Differing from liberals who are doubling down on one of the problems (easy money from the federal government), Kelly suggests that conservative policymakers reform our student loan system by placing caps on the amount that can be borrowed and by having universities share in the risk of loan default. Kelly further suggests creating new, market-based financing options, promoting apprenticeships and job training, and providing parents and students with better information and transparency.

The middle class also wants solutions to other key issues they face, and conservatives debating at the Reagan Library should offer them. In addition to addressing college affordability, the middle class wants details about how to get America back to work. Conservatives have solutions to address employment. In Room To Grow, Michael Strain asserts that conservatives should break down government-imposed barriers that make it more difficult for Americans to find work. Conservative policymakers should scale back occupational licensing requirements that have gone out of control. They should also promote policies that create incentives for businesses to hire the long-term unemployed, including tax credits and payroll tax holidays.

The American people also want candidates to discuss how to provide every child with the opportunity to receive a high-quality education; conservatives have answers. In CRN’s Room To Grow, K-12 education scholar Rick Hess contends parents and students should have greater choice in education. If a child is stuck in a failing school simply because of her ZIP code, or if a school is not meeting her individual needs, her parents should be empowered to choose a school where her needs are met and where she can have a better opportunity for success.

A solutions-oriented agenda by itself is not enough. Middle-income Americans want to know how conservatives will address their concerns while restoring fiscal discipline to Washington, and they want a positive vision for our country’s future. Several candidates in the first Republican debate understood this critical dynamic, including Governor Bush, Senator Rubio, and Governor Kasich who said, “We need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have.”

Millions of Americans will watch Wednesday’s Republican debate, and conservative candidates have an opportunity they cannot afford to miss. They should discuss the challenges facing America’s middle class, offer principled, practical solutions like those offered in Conservative Reform Network’s Room To Grow projects, and provide a positive, conservative vision for our country’s future. If conservatives hope to win the White House, they will follow that course.

Murray is founder and chairman of the board of the Conservative Reform Network.