Politics
9:11 am
Sat May 24, 2014

Conservatives Brainstorm To Win Voters In The Middle

Originally published on Sat May 24, 2014 1:09 pm

Election watchers say Republicans could take control of the Senate this fall. At the same time, many of these same analysts see problems for the Grand Old Party in the longer term.

Republican voters tend to be white, older and more affluent, and their share of the overall population is shrinking. That's why at least some conservatives think it's time for the party to broaden its appeal to the middle class.

The latest push comes in the form of a glossy collection of essays from center-right thinkers called Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class.

Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at National Review and a contributor to the collection, says there's a sense among some Republicans that in recent years, conservative policies have gotten a little stale.

"They're adapted to the circumstances of 1981," Ponnuru says. "What we wanted to do was to try to refresh our ideas and talk about how today's conservatives would tackle issues like health care or energy or balancing work and family."

Some of the ideas are new, like rethinking higher education. Others, like expanding the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, were once common topics among Republicans, but lately have fallen from favor.

Still others are well-worn, pet party issues, like limiting the reach of unions, changing overtime policies and expanding school choice. It's an eclectic stew with many flavors, and Ponnuru admits it may not appeal to all the Republicans in Congress and beyond.

"It is a bunch of ideas, and not every person who reads it is going to like every single one of those ideas," he says. "But if more of them get out there and start affecting the conversation, and people pick up some of them, then I think we'll be making progress."

Republicans are making other efforts to reach the middle class — or "working Americans," the phrase preferred by former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He appeared recently on the Hannity Show on Fox News to pitch his new book, Blue Collar Conservatives.

"We have to be able to go out there and meet people where they are," Santorum said. "Stop talking macro-economics and start talking micro-economics."

At a forum put on this week by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell implied that all the focus in recent years on job-creators didn't hit the right note.

"Look, for most Americans, whose daily concerns revolve around aging parents and long commutes, shrinking budgets and obscenely high tuition bills, these hymns to entrepreneurism are, as a practical matter, largely irrelevant and the audience for them is probably a lot smaller than we think," McConnell said.

Part of this effort also includes changing the way Republicans talk about economic issues. At the same forum, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott personalized his critique of the Great Society programs.

"The fact of the matter is, to kids like me growing up in [the] houses of Frances Scott, who was working 16 hours a day, living in the wrong zip code, it didn't work very well," Scott says. "Unfortunately, when you look in those same zip codes, things are getting worse."

But Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, thinks the talk of outreach rings a little hollow, given that House Republicans again passed what's known as the Ryan Budget, which envisions steep cuts to the social safety net.

"Every House Republican voted for that budget, not three years ago but just in the last few months," Tandeen says. "The real issue is where do people stand, and we know where they stand from the budget they just passed."

Even Ponnuru says inertia may be working against the conservative reformers. The inclination, he says, is to stick with what worked in the past.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Republicans hoping to take back the U.S. Senate got a boost this week. Well-financed establishment candidates beat back Tea Party challengers. The winners are expected to do well in November's general election. But the party faces a challenge in the longer term.

Republican voters tend to be white, older, and more affluent. Their share of the overall population is diminishing. Some conservatives think it's time for the party to broaden its appeal. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The latest push comes in the form of a glossy book, a collection of essays from center-right thinkers called "Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class." Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and a contributor to the collection. He says there's a sense that in recent years, conservative policies have gotten a little stale.

RAMESH PONNURU: That they're adapted to the circumstance of 1981. And so what we wanted to do was to try to refresh our ideas and talk about how today's conservatives would tackle issues like health care or energy or balancing work and family.

KEITH: Some of the ideas are new, like rethinking higher education. Others, like expanding the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, were once common topics among Republicans but lately have fallen from favor. And still others are well-worn party pet issues like limiting the reach of unions, changing overtime policies, and expanding school choice.

It's an eclectic stew with many flavors, and Ponnuru admits it may not appeal to all the Republicans in Congress and beyond.

PONNURU: It is a bunch of ideas, and not every person who reads it is going to like every single one of those ideas. But if more of them get out there and start affecting the conversation and people pick up some of them, then I think we'll be making progress.

KEITH: Republicans are making other efforts to reach the middle class, or working Americans, the phrase preferred by former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He appeared recently on "The Hannity Show" on Fox News to pitch his new book, "Blue Collar Conservatives."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SEAN HANNITY SHOW")

RICK SANTORUM: We have to be able to go out there and meet people where they are, stop talking macroeconomics, and talk microeconomics.

KEITH: At a forum put on this week by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell implied all the focus in recent years on job creators didn't hit the right note.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: But for most Americans whose daily concerns revolve around aging parents and long commutes, shrinking budgets and insanely high tuition bills, these hymns to entrepreneurism are, as a practical matter, largely irrelevant. And the audience for them is probably a lot smaller than we'd think.

KEITH: Part of this effort also includes changing the way Republicans talk about economic issues. At the same forum, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott personalized his critique of the Great Society Programs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR TIM SCOTT: The fact of the matter is that kids like me growing up in houses of Francis Scott, it was working 16 hours a day, living in the wrong zip code. It didn't work very well. And unfortunately, when you look in those same zip codes, things are getting worse.

KEITH: To Neera Tanden, though, the talk of outreach rings a little hollow given that House Republicans again passed what's known as the Ryan budget, which envisions steep cuts to the social safety net. Tanden is president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

NEERA TANDEN: Every House Republican voted for that budget, not three years ago, just in the last few months. I think the real issue here is where do people stand? And we know where they stand from the budget they just passed.

KEITH: Even Ramesh Ponnuru, one of the authors of this new vision document, says inertia may be working against the conservative reformers. The inclination, he says, is to stick with what's worked in the past. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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