Republicans have for years paid too little attention to the need to strengthen economic mobility in America, and to address the challenges of middle-class families. The Romney campaign talked sporadically about helping the middle class but mostly failed to make the case that his agenda would promote the interests of Americans beyond the boardroom. At times, most notably of course in Romney’s deeply misguided dismissal of 47 percent of Americans as hopeless moochers, the campaign even radiated a powerful disregard for the middle class — an unfortunate attitude that, if the demographics of the Romney electorate in exit polls are any guide, helped to defeat it.
It was heartening, therefore, to find two of the Republican party’s rising stars, Romney’s former running mate Representative Paul Ryan and Florida senator Marco Rubio, extensively discussing economic mobility and the middle class this week. The venue was Tuesday night’s annual dinner of the Jack Kemp Foundation, an organization established to champion the legacy of perhaps the greatest economic-mobility conservative of them all. Ryan was the keynote speaker, and Rubio received the foundation’s annual award. Both took the opportunity to call on their fellow Republicans to emphasize the promise of conservative ideas for working families and the poor.
While offering praise for Mitt Romney’s willingness to campaign on entitlement reform, and for his personal decency, Representative Ryan went after the “47 percent” argument. “Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters,’” he said, “but Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American.” With the same intensity with which they offer up the conservative case for the entrepreneur, he explained, Republicans must offer up the conservative case for the poor and aspiring. Ryan said:
As it stands, our party excels at representing the aspirations of our nation’s risk-takers. We celebrate that part of the American Dream that involves finding your passion and making a living from it. But there is another part of the American creed: When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another. We do that best through our families and communities — and our party must stand for making them stronger. We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work, but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision.
At the heart of that vision, he argued, are a safety net better geared to enabling independence, our free-enterprise system (“because nothing has done more to lift people everywhere out of poverty”), and the institutions of civil society that occupy that “vast middle ground between the government and the individual.”
Ryan laid out some policy ideas on all three fronts, but stressed the limits of public programs in addressing the sorts of cultural problems that now afflict our poor communities. “Even a mighty government cannot match the power of one caring soul helping another,” he argued.
Where Ryan focused on revitalizing economic mobility, Senator Rubio dwelt on where mobility should lead. “The existence of a large and vibrant American middle class goes to the very essence of America’s exceptional identity,” he argued, and “the path to a prosperous and growing American middle class is the combination of a vibrant economy that creates middle-class jobs and a people with the skills needed for these new jobs.” America, he noted, is falling short on both fronts today.
From the case for spending restraint and entitlement reform to the conservative regulatory agenda and monetary policy, he argued for putting the Right’s policy proposals in terms of the needs of current and aspiring middle-class families, and for developing new conservative ideas to meet those needs. Even newly emerging domestic sources of energy should be understood in these terms:
This new energy wealth means all kinds of new middle-class jobs, from the fields and platforms where we drill, to the manufacturing plants that will return to the U.S. with the lower cost of energy. These are just the type of jobs we need most right now: well-paying, middle class work that doesn’t require an expensive advanced degree and that contributes to the strength of our economy.
That expensive degree was the subject of many of Rubio’s remarks. Republicans, he said, should make the traditional college degree both less costly and less essential, especially by promoting alternatives such as online learning and professional certification.
“Beyond education,” he acknowledged, “there is another obstacle that is keeping too many young Americans from moving ahead”: the disastrous breakdown of family and community among the poor. This breakdown is perhaps the most significant obstacle to economic mobility, and “rather than pretend we know the answer, we should start by engaging those who do important work every day in mentoring young people and leading them on the right path.” Engagement would involve not a new public program, he urged, but “a national conversation about the importance of civil society institutions and leaders in creating the social infrastructure needed for success.”
In all of this, Rubio argued, “government has a role to play, and we must make sure it does its part. But it’s a supporting role: to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy. That’s a crucial role but a necessarily limited one. It can’t substitute for what it is meant to enable.”
Indeed, both Ryan and Rubio stressed the ways in which a focus on the plight of the poor and the aspirations of the middle class are natural upshots of conservative principles. Unlike some past champions of a poverty and mobility agenda on the right, they offered their ideas not as a counterbalance to conservative economic thinking but as a perfectly natural extension and application of it. Theirs is not a hyphenated conservatism but a full-spectrum conservatism.
Both speeches offered some specific policy ideas, but they could have used more — particularly regarding ways to strengthen the incentives for work and to offset the mistreatment of parents in the tax code. We hope to see both men, and many other Republicans, advancing such particulars in the coming months. But both made the case for an inclusive, hopeful, appealing, conservative vision of mobility — a vision that sits firmly in the Kemp tradition.
Such a case would have been awfully helpful in the last election, but perhaps it was precisely its absence from the Romney campaign’s arsenal of arguments that has driven its subsequent emergence. “Losing is part of politics, and can often prepare the way for the greatest victories,” Ryan noted in his remarks.
Winning is better, but it is very nice to see that the groundwork for those future victories is beginning to be laid.