Mike Lee, the senator from Utah, gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation last week that demands attention. The takeaway: Candidates need policy ideas that address the concerns of ordinary voters—and they have to campaign, and win, on those ideas. Lee noted that conservative scholars have a number of imaginative proposals that try to address the breakdown of the family, the rising cost of health insurance and higher education, the lengthening suburban commute, and out-of-control entitlement spending. Read an issue of National Affairs (or The Weekly Standard!) if you doubt him. But Republican officeholders haven’t picked up the torch. The GOP elite is stuck in the policy thinking of the Reagan Revolution. “Instead of emulating that generation,” Lee said, “too many Republicans today mimic them—still advocating policies from a bygone age.”
What made the speech compelling was that Lee didn’t limit himself to a critique. He announced four specific proposals—to aid families raising kids, facing the challenge of balancing work life and home life, spending too much time sitting in gridlock, and struggling to afford a college education. All four are worthy of consideration. His tax plan would simplify and reduce rates and offer a $2,500 per-child credit (up from $1,000 today) that would offset both income and payroll taxes. His reform of labor laws would allow employees who work overtime to take comp time or flex time in lieu of pay—an option currently available to federal workers but not to the rest of us. His transportation bill would lower the federal gas tax and devolve power to the states and localities. And his education proposal would create a new optional system of accreditation: “States could accredit online courses, or hybrid models with elements on and off campus.” Parents and students would have more flexibility. They’d also have more choices.
Lee is just one of several Republican politicians rethinking the GOP economic agenda. Along with former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, he’s giving renewed attention to the interests of the American middle class, of the families who struggle in the Obama economy but see the national GOP as equally out of touch. These labor Republicans want to apply conservative principles to the economic crisis of our time: low growth, stagnant wages, and social immobility. They may not be numerous enough to form a caucus. But give them time.
What the labor Republicans share is a respect for work. “Work for able-bodied adults is not a necessary evil,” Lee said, “but an essential pathway to personal happiness.” A labor Republican opposes the Senate immigration bill not only because it’s a bureaucratic monstrosity, but also because an influx of cheap labor would decrease low-skilled wages. A labor Republican is well disposed to cuts in the payroll tax rate, or to an expanded child tax credit, because he thinks the GOP ought to do something for married couples with children. A labor Republican is not reluctant to embrace proposals to reduce the size and power of the Wall Street banks. Nor is he reluctant to discuss the social and cultural background—disintegrating families, radical abortion laws, legitimation of drugs and pornography—to economic malaise.
If those views sound opposite to the views of Republican party officials, D.C. operatives, and donors along the coasts—well, they are. Back in March, when the Republican National Committee released its “autopsy report” on the 2012 presidential election, the establishment consensus was that the GOP needed to embrace comprehensive immigration reform and reject the social issues in order to compete on economics. But, as the conservative group American Principles in Action (APIA) demonstrates in its own new report, “Building a Winning GOP Coalition,” the party leadership got it backwards. It’s not the social issues that hurt Republicans. It’s the economic ones.
American Principles in Action hired a research firm, Design4, to analyze the ads run by the Romney campaign and affiliated groups in 2012. Out of more than $400 million in ad spending, Design4 found only five ads that could be broadly interpreted as dealing with social issues: one defending Israel, two attacking the HHS contraceptive mandate, one attacking administrative changes to welfare reform, and one defending Romney from the charge that he was a pro-life extremist. Not a single ad directed at Latinos mentioned a social issue. On the issues closest to the hearts of his electoral base, Mitt Romney was silent.
This “self-mute” strategy, replicated by Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race, has four negative consequences. It allows Democrats to frame the debate—and, as APIA observes, “In a country deeply conflicted by the issue of abortion, the party that aggressively frames the debate stands to win.” The self-mute strategy also prevents the GOP from attracting new voters who may not agree with the party on economics but do agree on social and cultural matters. It lets Democrats pay no price for pro-choice extremism. And it gives social conservatives hardly any reason to pull the lever for Republicans. Why vote when neither candidate speaks your language?
The self-mute strategy is intended to create more space for the Republican economic message. But that message can be unpleasant to the ear. The success of past GOP tax policy has led to a situation in which reductions in marginal income tax rates no longer have widespread appeal. The Republican celebration of the heroic entrepreneur and job creator falls flat in a country where Horrible Bosses is a box-office hit. One of the top concerns of voters, prices rising faster than one might gather from the official statistics, is hardly addressed by either party. Working families with kids want to hear politicians speak to their concerns: increasing health and tuition costs and a moribund job market. What they often hear from Republicans are prophetic warnings about debt and deficits, and the necessity of cuts in entitlements and in the corporate income tax. No wonder they tune out.
Labor Republicans can do better. They can link Obamacare to Americans’ declining standard of living. They can champion innovative education reforms like changes to accreditation or a Texas-style $10,000 bachelor’s degree. They can reintroduce monetary policy to the national debate and frame their economic policies in terms of making the dollar go further. They can speak the language of the family man in exurban Ohio rather than the language of the mogul in midtown Manhattan. They can take lessons from Mike Lee and propose future-oriented, positive legislation designed to benefit working Americans. Not every piece of legislation will satisfy small-government conservatives and fervent libertarians, who more often want to discuss cutting government than making it work for the people. But in fact a middle-class agenda—a working Americans agenda, a labor agenda—would help shape the kind of America almost all conservatives would like to see. “By 1980,” Lee said, “the movement had forged an agenda for its time—and only then did it succeed.” It can again.