Who Are Republicans Talking To About Poverty? (Hint: Not the Poor.)

Republican poverty messaging aims to close the empathy gap that plagued Mitt Romney.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) addresses an event held by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) January 8, 2014 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Rubio spoke on reforming antipoverty programs and improving income mobility in the United States.
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Beth Reinhard
Jan. 9, 2014, 5:18 a.m.

Rand Paul, sen­at­or and pos­sible pres­id­en­tial con­tender from largely white and rur­al Ken­tucky, wasn’t tar­get­ing poor black voters in De­troit when he opened a Re­pub­lic­an Party of­fice there last month. Neither were Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, Rep. Paul Ry­an of Wis­con­sin, and House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor when they talked about poverty in speeches this week.

This on­slaught of Re­pub­lic­an poverty mes­saging is ac­tu­ally aimed at a more di­verse and middle-class audi­ence. It re­flects re­cog­ni­tion among GOP lead­ers that their elect­or­al suc­cess in­creas­ingly de­pends on soften­ing the party’s im­age and clos­ing the em­pathy gap.

“Clearly, it’s im­port­ant that wo­men and minor­ity voters hear these mes­sages, be­cause they want to see lead­er­ship and com­pas­sion,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist Katie Pack­er Gage, a top Mitt Rom­ney ad­viser who now works on out­reach to fe­male voters. “Some of the rhet­or­ic in the last few years has caused parts of the elect­or­ate to be a little bit dis­en­fran­chised. But the core Re­pub­lic­an philo­sophy about in­creas­ing op­por­tun­ity is something that res­on­ates, and we just have to get back to that.”

The GOP’s un­usu­al at­ten­tion to poverty also of­fers voters a com­pel­ling coun­ter­point to the es­cal­at­ing Demo­crat­ic line of at­tack against in­come in­equal­ity. Pres­id­ent Obama re­cently called it “the de­fin­ing is­sue of our time,” ham­mer­ing Re­pub­lic­ans for op­pos­ing min­im­um-wage hikes, cut­ting off un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits, and pro­pos­ing food-stamp cuts.

But while Obama em­phas­ized “in­come in­equal­ity” in his speech in a strug­gling Dis­trict of Columbia neigh­bor­hood, Ru­bio stressed “in­come mo­bil­ity” Wed­nes­day in a chan­deliered room of the Cap­it­ol. The mes­saging is de­lib­er­ate and as dif­fer­ent as their parties’ core be­liefs and con­stitu­en­cies.

In­come in­equal­ity sug­gests that the gap between rich and poor is an in­sti­tu­tion­al prob­lem. To Demo­crats, in­di­vidu­als are not to blame for their cir­cum­stances, and gov­ern­ment needs to of­fer solu­tions. That’s a mes­sage that ap­peals to the party’s lib­er­al base. In con­trast, in­come mo­bil­ity re­flects the Re­pub­lic­ans’ trade­mark up-by-your-boot­straps philo­sophy that says in­di­vidu­als who work hard should be able to rise — if Wash­ing­ton stays out of the way.

It’s the dif­fer­ence between a safety net and a lad­der. Ru­bio cast the 50-year-old “War on Poverty” launched by Pres­id­ent John­son as a fail­ure and called for the states to take over fed­er­al pro­grams for the needy.

“They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help people emerge from poverty,” Ru­bio said. “The only solu­tion that will achieve mean­ing­ful and last­ing res­ults is to provide those who are stuck in low-pay­ing jobs with the real op­por­tun­ity to move up to bet­ter pay­ing jobs.”

The mes­sen­ger mat­ters as much as the mes­sage. Un­like Rom­ney, a wealthy cor­por­ate ex­ec­ut­ive and the son of a former gov­ernor, Ru­bio comes from a Cuban-im­mig­rant, work­ing-class fam­ily. His moth­er worked as a maid and a store clerk; his fath­er was a bar­tender.

The fresh­man sen­at­or’s com­pel­ling bio­graphy is a big reas­on why many Re­pub­lic­ans see him as a fu­ture pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. Ry­an, who hails from a work­ing-class, Mid­west­ern town, has called an­ti­poverty cru­sader and former Hous­ing Sec­ret­ary Jack Kemp a ment­or. Tapped by Rom­ney to be his vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, Ry­an was eager to cam­paign in poor neigh­bor­hoods but was lim­ited to giv­ing a speech on poverty in Clev­e­land and vis­it­ing a mostly black, private Chris­ti­an school in De­troit.

“Demo­crats did a good job in 2012 of paint­ing Re­pub­lic­ans as people born with sil­ver spoons in their mouths, but that’s not as easy to do with people like Paul Ry­an and Marco Ru­bio giv­ing the mes­sage,” Gage said. “Re­pub­lic­ans have a huge op­por­tun­ity here.”

Can­tor’s re­marks this week at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion pro­moted school choice as a rem­edy to break­ing the poverty cycle. The speech re­flects the same strategy that brought Rom­ney to a Phil­adelphia school dur­ing the 2012 cam­paign. The GOP nom­in­ee wasn’t stump­ing for urb­an, low-in­come votes; he was tele­graph­ing his con­cerns about edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­ity to sub­urb­an wo­men, minor­it­ies, and oth­er swing voters. Can­tor was try­ing to reach the same audi­ence with his speech one year ago on “mak­ing life work” that sought to off­set the party’s hard line on fisc­al aus­ter­ity.

Ry­an is sched­uled to ad­dress poverty in an in­ter­view Thursday night with NBC an­chor­man Bri­an Wil­li­ams.

“It is a mes­sage not just to those liv­ing in poverty but to those who are liv­ing a rung or two above it,” said Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Glen Bol­ger. “Those are the people most likely to hear the mes­sage.”

Politi­cians have long ig­nored the poorest Amer­ic­ans, in part out of ex­pedi­ence. Voter turnout among the poor is much lower than par­ti­cip­a­tion among middle-class and wealthy voters. In the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, turnout ranged from 46 per­cent among people earn­ing less than $20,000 an­nu­ally, to 63 per­cent among $40,000-to-$49,000 in­come earners, to 80 per­cent among people mak­ing more than $150,000 a year, ac­cord­ing to the census.

Exit polls found that 59 per­cent of the elect­or­ate earned more than $50,000 and 41 per­cent earned less than that. Pres­id­ent Obama won a strong ma­jor­ity of the lower-in­come group.

Des­pite a her­al­ded makeover that the na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Party began nearly one year, a re­cent NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll found the Demo­crat­ic Party held a 28-point lead on the ques­tion of show­ing “con­cern and com­pas­sion for people.”

“Re­pub­lic­ans are diving in­to the con­ver­sa­tion be­cause they know they can’t let Demo­crats con­tin­ue to corner the mar­ket on in­come in­equal­ity in 2014,” said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Cor­nell Belch­er, who worked on both of Obama’s White House cam­paigns. “They have got to get out and com­pete for new voters or they’re not go­ing to grow as a na­tion­al party.”


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