House majority leader Eric Cantor’s speech at the American Enterprise Institute this afternoon is an overture to working Americans, from middle-class soccer moms to first-generation immigrants. Republican leaders, he says, should do more to reach those voters, and not shy away from compassion.
Cantor’s talk is the latest in the GOP’s unofficial speech series about the future of the party. But what makes Cantor’s message unique is its focus. Instead of appealing with only a softer tone or a political rebranding, he’d like Republicans to make their case with policy.
“We will advance proposals aimed at producing results in areas like education, health care, innovation, and job growth,” Cantor says, according to prepared remarks. “Our solutions will be based on the conservative principles of self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family, and accountability in government.Our goal — to ensure every American has a fair shot at earning their success and achieving their dreams.”
Cantor’s speech, however, isn’t a glance at the budget, or a plea for spending cuts. Rather, it’s a recommendation for rethinking, and a new strategy in selling conservative ideas to skeptical audiences. Most notably, he speaks about the need for a better Republican message on education, where he’d like to see the party do more to explain school choice.
“One of our priorities this year will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable,” he says. “Explaining that rising health-care costs are depressing take-home pay is little consolation to a working mom. Her grocery bills are higher, her kids’ school needs are more expensive, rent is up — and now, she’s just trying to get by. And getting by is not the American dream.”
To make the point even further, Cantor will be joined by underprivileged students at the event, many of whom live in Washington, D.C., and attend charter schools.
Family-friendly tax policy, which NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written about for years, is another key component. “In our attempt to make the tax code simpler, we must continue to demonstrate support for young parents who invest in having kids and raising a family. They are America’s most valued investors,” Cantor says. “In 1997, a Republican Congress created the child tax credit specifically to help ease the financial burden of families raising children. In 2001, it was expanded. Such a policy helps to limit the size of government and results in fewer Americans looking to the government for support.”
Immigration also features. Cantor pushes for more visas for highly educated foreigners, and he urges Republicans to take the broader immigration issue seriously, even if there are disagreements within the party. “While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws, and that’s what makes tackling the issue of immigration reform so difficult,” he says. “We must balance respect for the rule of law and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally, with care for people and families, most of whom just want to make a better life, and contribute to America.”
More broadly, Cantor’s speech signals a shift by House Republicans away from the fiscal battles that have been dominating congressional debate. Cantor wants Republicans to be known by voters for more than their positions on sequestration and the debt limit.
The speech’s genesis reflects its theme. According to Cantor insiders, the majority leader decided to give this upbeat, policy-heavy speech in late December, just when Republicans were warring amongst each other over the fiscal cliff.