The GOP Disconnect on Economic Policy

Nancy Cook

The Republican National Committee may want to send a few extra copies of the election postmortem it released this week over to Capitol Hill. Judging by the budget blueprints put forth by congressional Republicans, they didn’t get the memo.

Right now, there appears to be a disconnect on economic policy between Republican Party officials, concerned with winning the White House in 2016, and congressional Republicans, concerned with slashing government spending and overhauling Medicare and Medicaid.

That divide was particularly evident this week as the RNC released a report that implored Republicans to put forth new or different policy ideas to address the economic anxieties of the working and middle classes. “The Republican Party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life,” the report said. Historically, whoever charms this group wins national elections.

Then, just hours later, the Republican Study Committee released an alternative budget proposal that called for lower taxes; drastically reduced spending for items such as education, housing assistance, and transportation; and big changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

It was enough to give close observers of the party whiplash—and certainly enough to confuse the average voter as to where Republicans stood on their plans to boost the lackluster fortunes of the middle class.

“Nobody is suggesting that the basic principles of the Republican Party should change. We’re always looking for new ideas consistent with those principles,” said Charles Black, a veteran Republican strategist. “But, how you do talk about these ideas in terms that the average American can relate to?”

That’s the crux of the debate raging in the Republican Party as part of its postelection reevaluation and its search for the new GOP brand. Party icons who advocated for supply-side economics with a dash of populism, such as former President Reagan or former Rep. Jack Kemp, are long dead. Party intellectuals such as Pete Wehner, who served in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, have argued in op-eds that the party now needs new policies to speak directly to Americans’ economic anxieties.

However, most of the Republican lawmakers on the Hill still believe the problem lies simply with their salesmanship of the ideas—finding more articulate ways to explain their plans to slash government spending. That’s why House Republicans seem poised to pass Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending plan with ease this week, even if it proved unpopular on the national stage during the 2012 election.

“We think we owe the country solutions to the big problems that are plaguing our nation: a debt crisis on the horizon, a slow-growing economy, people trapped in poverty,” Ryan said the day he unveiled his budget blueprint.

And that’s why Ryan and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp, now often talk about budget politics or tax reform as ways to create jobs, boost the economy, or alleviate economic woes.

“I don’t see any inconsistencies in those two ideas,” Black said about the RNC report and the House Republicans’ budget proposals. “If we do not get the debt and deficit under control, the next few generations will have a much poorer life.”

Even if the problem lies solely with the marketing of their ideas, some say the GOP has not done a great job linking its policies of austerity and a balanced budget with job creation or economic security. “The idea of a balanced budget right now is our best message,” said GOP strategist John Feehery. “They make the argument that, by cutting government, the economy will grow, but I’m not sure how much evidence there is that a balanced budget necessarily leads to economic growth.”

The idea of balancing the budget in 10 years is polling well with the Republican base as both an economic and moral issue, says longtime Republican pollster Whit Ayres. It remains to be seen if that message will resonate with the American public the way the Democrats’ populist message of taxing the wealthy did in the 2012 presidential campaign.