A New Tack for the GOP: Helping the Poor

Scott Walker and Paul Ryan vie to put to rest Romney’s corrosive remarks about “the 47 percent." REUTERS/Larry Downing

Mitt Romney's divisive remarks about America's 47 percent continues to cast a long shadow over the Republican Party – and 2016 presidential hopefuls are trying to outrun it. Two frontrunners for the GOP nomination are raising an issue that has long been the preserve of the Democrats: the poor and how best to help them.

A year after Romney failed to unseat President Obama, ambitious Republicans seeking to make themselves into national figures and redefine their party are distancing themselves from the former Massachusetts governor and his inability to come across as a guy who cares about the down and out.

"A national candidate for the presidency, if they're smart, would raise it and make it a part of their conversation and make it a party of their platform," said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Because the poor are citizens. They vote, they are engaged, they are aware of what's happening to them."

Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, says he's only focused on his 2014 re-election bid right now, but his new book and national publicity tour – including a number of stops in Washington, D.C. – put him firmly on the 2016 map. At an event at the D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute last week, Walker took aim at Romney's counter-productive rhetoric toward the poor.

He zeroed in on two comments from Romney in his new book, Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge: the first are the infamous comments caught on video at a fundraiser and released by Mother Jones magazine in August last year.

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what ... who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims," Romney told the people at his $50,000-per-plate fundraiser. "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

The second was Romney's comment that he's "not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there."

Republican strategist Ford O'Connell says the 47 percent line has become a buzzword, reminding voters that Republicans hate poor people. "That is something that is strapped, right or wrong, to the Republican brand," he said. "If [Republicans] want to win the White House or to get into a position of power again, they're going to have to break that label."

Walker repeatedly distanced himself from these comments. "Most people in my state who are temporarily living in poverty, who are temporarily dependent on government, don't want to be," he told the audience at AEI. "The American dream is not to become dependent on the government."

Republicans often blame government programs for turning Americans into dependent and ambitionless moochers. From there, it's a short step to calling them moochers outright, as Romney did when he thought the cameras weren't watching. Walker's remarks walk that back significantly.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Romney's running mate, is also rehabilitating his image, and a new anti-poverty plan will be a central feature in his political makeover. The Washington Post recently ran a story about Ryan with sources divulging how uncomfortable he felt about Romney's 47 percent comments.

"[F]our advisers who worked with him on the campaign said he was mortified by Romney's 47-percent remarks. Two of those advisers said Ryan spoke directly to Romney about it in mid-September 2012," the Post reported. According to the story, Ryan wanted to focus on poverty from the moment he joined the ticket, but the Romney campaign just couldn't make it happen. Ryan hasn't ruled out a 2016 run and he certainly sees the need to shake the 47 percent label.

The Post story is just the beginning of Ryan's planned comeback. He also has a book in the works and, more importantly, is planning to unveil a major anti-poverty plan in 2014, 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson's famous War on Poverty was launched.

Thus far, details of the plan are scant, but there's little reason to think they will increase the federal government's safety net. "Paul wants people to dream again," Bishop Shirley Holloway, who ministers to the poor in Washington, D.C., and received a visit from Ryan, told the Post. "You don't dream when you've got food stamps."

"I've been very heartened to hear and to see Paul Ryan raise this conversation," said Steele. "Since my days as a county chairman I've made this argument, and it drives me nuts that the party whistles past" the poverty issue, he said. "We've gotten sidetracked by other conversations that have nothing to do with our core argument, and that is economic empowerment, ownership and opportunity."

Romney's 47 percent comment was harmful to his campaign, but it did not create the impression that he lacked sympathy for the plight of poor Americans; it merely reinforced it. Months before the comment surfaced, polls already showed that Romney had a big empathy gap with voters. In other words, people didn't think Romney cared about them.

After the election, a report by the Republican National Committee noted that "The perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party" and is "a major deficiency that must be addressed."

A multi-millionaire whose background included buying companies, laying off workers and selling those companies on again, sometimes to fail, Romney was the wrong champion for the GOP if its goal was to come across as the party of the working poor and middle class. But Democrats feel it wasn't just the aloof Romney who was easy to portray as uncaring and out-of-touch; they believe it was the Republican Party as a whole that had abandoned the poor.

From Ryan's safety net-slashing budget plans to Republicans' broader attempt to cut programs like food stamps, reducing assistance to the poor has given the GOP its reputation as the party of the rich.

"The GOP problem with low income Americans isn't the legacy of Mitt Romney; it is their fundamental philosophy that the number one job for government is to help the wealthy," said Democratic strategist Bill Burton. "At a moment when wage disparity is bigger than it's ever been in the history of the world, it is something that Americans are more acutely aware of than they have ever been."

"Romney was just a symptom of the overall disease infecting the Republican Party," Republican strategist Mark McKinnon said. "The fatal flaw in the GOP brand today is that average Americans don't think Republicans care about people like them."

The current fight over the budget and Farm Bill, both currently being negotiated between House Republicans and Senate Democrats, highlights the GOP's problem. If no budget agreement is reached because Republicans, led by Ryan, refuse to accept any tax increases, Democrats will be able to attack them for refusing to ease painful spending cuts by closing tax loopholes for the rich.

Same goes for the Farm Bill, where Republicans want to cut the food stamps program, which helps feed one in seven Americans, by nearly $40 billion.

"It doesn't look good," O'Connell said, conceding that the public perception of the battle over food stamps is not helping Republicans shake their bash-the-poor reputation. "Republicans need to take a look at their policies," he said. "But, at the end of the day, the optics of 'Do you care about me?' is what's killing them."

That's where he thinks Ryan and Walker are on the right track: build relationships with poor communities so they will be receptive to your ideas. "You have got to begin that process now and really make inroads," he said.

Steele sees it slightly differently: If Republicans want to cut programs, they need to explain why they are doing it. "One of the problems Republicans have is they start chopping without explanation, without putting context, so they become easy prey to those who say, 'You hate poor people and you want to kick them off food stamp programs,'" he said. "If the goal is to help transition people to a better way of life that they define for themselves…we need to talk with clarity about how we do that."

In Wisconsin, Walker is implementing a new work requirement for able-bodied food stamp recipients without children. Estimates show the changes could push tens of thousands of poor people out of the program.

But Walker defends the reform in his book. "Our critics say that I must hate poor people because I'm making it harder to get government assistance," he wrote. "The opposite is true. I love the people of my state so much that I don't want them to be permanently dependent on the government."

Both sides acknowledge that Democrats have the upper hand when it comes to the issue of poverty, but Burton, who arguably helped create that advantage as a senior adviser to the anti-Romney super PAC Priorities USA Action in the 2012 election cycle, doesn't think Democrats should rest on their laurels.

"I believe there is an opening for Democrats to make a case on some of these core progressive issues and it's important that we do so," he said, noting that Democrats often shy away from poverty issues. "I'd love to see the rise of a band of Democrats in government who are more sensible but just as vociferous on issues for the poor as the Tea Party is on issues of taxes and debt."