After six years of bending to the gales of tea party vituperation against President Barack Obama, the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls seem to be rising up like visitors to Oz — with a heart, courage and a brain.
“Idea conservative” is a common nickname given to those who seek to respond to liberal ideas, policies and programs with something more than a simple “No.”
We’ve seen this “new ideas” dance before. Ronald Reagan revived post-Watergate Republicans partly by inspiring conservative think tanks and market-based alternatives to the government-centered remedies of liberal New Deal Democrats. Bill Clinton revived Democratic fortunes by embracing the center-left ideas of the Democratic Leadership Council. George W. Bush pushed “compassionate conservatism” in 2000.
Now, after losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential races, Republicans appear to be ready to put their thinking caps — or think tank caps — on again.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has been pushing an activist “American dream” agenda to boost economic mobility through wage subsidies, affordable child care and other “equal opportunity” measures.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is backpedaling away from his earlier libertarian-inspired criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act after a year of visits to black, Hispanic and low-income communities across the country. In Cincinnati recently, he told the National Urban League convention how he would expand voting rights, grow education opportunities and “stand and fight for justice” in a judicial system that’s stacked against minorities.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has alluded to similar themes on the stump, sounding as though he already has put his Bridgegate scandal behind him. “I’m pro-life, and if you’re pro-life you have to be pro-life when they get out of the womb also,” he told the Aspen Institute in Colorado.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who also continues to sound like he wants to be a candidate, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed of “a need for compassion” in responding to the recent surge of migrant children at our southwestern border.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin unveiled his long-awaited 73-page agenda for fighting poverty, conservative style, at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Its main features include an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, an income-supplement for low-wage workers that already has enjoyed bipartisan support since it began in President Gerald Ford’s administration.
A more controversial feature of Ryan’s plan are “Opportunity Grants” that sound a lot like block grants in the way they lump money for food stamps, housing assistance and other anti-poverty programs into one big allocation to the states to dispense as they please.
But Ryan insists that, unlike block grants, the money would have to be spent helping the poor, and the plan would be “budget neutral” by costing no more and benefiting low-income families no less than the current system.
For that, even Robert Reich, President Clinton’s labor secretary, said on CNN that he was “frankly very impressed” by Ryan’s plan.
But the details of Ryan’s plan, like those of the Grand Old Party’s other potential candidates, may mean less to the GOP’s outreach to minorities, among other potential voters, than the very fact that he actually has gone out and gotten acquainted with the people and communities that he says he is trying to help.
That’s the first step, said Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. The prominent black conservative served as a sort of urban Sherpa in the listening tour of grassroots community organizations on which Ryan has embarked over the past two years.
“After he had a chance to meet hundreds of people, what impressed me most is that he’s willing to change his mind,” said Woodson, who, like Ryan, worked with the late Rep. Jack Kemp, an unusually popular conservative in minority communities. “How often do you hear someone in Washington admit to changing their mind?”
Indeed. But whether Republicans can change black or Hispanic minds remains to be seen. Minority and low-income voters probably are looking for more than new promises. They want to know that the candidate really cares about their problems.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.