This week many prominent Republicans are taking part in a new campaign to emphasize GOP solutions for poverty. Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Reince Priebus and others are marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty by outlining conservative ideas for improving the lot of the poorest Americans. And the effort is not just to commemorate an occasion; these leaders and others want the Republican Party to give anti-poverty policy a newly prominent place among GOP priorities.
It's unclear whether Republicans will be able to actually enact any of their policy proposals -- especially since so far, they haven't actually agreed on what those proposals are, although they are talking about education reforms, tax changes, "economic freedom zones" and an increase in the child tax credit. Meanwhile, Democrats are putting new energy behind an anti-poverty agenda straight out of the Johnson era, highlighted by the expansion of Medicaid in Obamacare, a vastly expanded food stamp program and the push for a higher minimum wage.
The sparseness of the new Republican anti-poverty agenda has led some critics to charge that it's just talk, that these Republicans, some of whom are planning to run for president, are discussing poverty to soften their image and re-position the GOP as a more compassionate party. But that is where the Republicans' anti-poverty move makes the least sense.
President Obama almost never talked about poverty in the last election. He just didn't mention it. Instead, in speech after speech, rally after rally, commercial after commercial, Obama and his fellow Democrats targeted the great American middle class, wracked by economic anxieties and concerned about maintaining its style of life in a terrible economic downturn. For Democrats, the election was middle class, middle class, middle class.
According to a word cloud created by the New York Times to track the use of various terms in speeches at the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions, Democrats used the phrase "middle class" far more than Republicans -- 47 times for Democrats to seven times for the GOP.
On the campaign trail, Obama's speeches were filled with references to the middle class. "We know this nation can't thrive, can't succeed without a growing, strong middle class." "A future that's built on a strong and growing middle class." "Grow our middle class." "When the other party has been willing to work with me to help middle-class families, like by cutting taxes for middle-class families." "The status quo that's been hurting middle-class families for way too long." All those quotes were from just one Obama stump speech. (It was in Mentor, Ohio, on Nov. 3, 2012.) The president repeated the performance many, many times over during the course of the campaign.
And when Obama won, what did he say on election night? "America, I believe we can build on the progress we've made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class."
It wasn't just Obama. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who has played a key role in crafting Democratic Senate campaigns, wrote a book in 2006 outlining his plan for a Democratic revival. The title was Positively American: Winning Back the Middle Class Majority One Family at a Time. This is what the New York Times wrote about it: "Mr. Schumer writes that his party has made the mistake, in recent years, of forgetting the middle class: 'We talked about them, but we didn't listen to them. Even worse, we were under the illusion that they liked what we had to say. In the 2004 election, the middle class was the runaway bride, and Democrats were left standing at the altar.' "
Schumer's words turned out to be a blueprint for Democratic success. "Read Schumer's book," a Republican strategist told me in a conversation Tuesday. "I don't think he could have said 'middle class' any more than he did."
Well, I asked, isn't that what Republicans should be doing, too — focusing on winning back those anxious middle-class voters who abandoned the party in 2008 and 2012?
"Yes, that's exactly what we should be trying to do," the strategist said.
But now, instead, comes a high-profile Republican campaign on poverty — a campaign launched without the party's internal agreement on a specific anti-poverty agenda. Contrary to critics on the left, there's little doubt that for many Republicans, the initiative is heartfelt. But going forward without a plan leaves the GOP open to the critique that it's all talk. And even if it were all talk, the new strategy ignores the (at least rhetorical) lesson of the Democrats' recent successes: When it comes to winning votes, it's all about the middle class.