Why Republicans are going on offense about poverty

After years of emphasizing austerity, Republicans are leaping to discuss ways the government can help alleviate poverty. The apparent shift in emphasis has a convenient hook — this week marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" — but there is another, more pressing, political reason for the interest in the topic on the right.

Congressional Democrats are preparing an intense campaign to highlight wage inequality and solutions to ease the effects of the Great Recession. The Senate this week approved a procedural motion to open debate on extending unemployment insurance, but most Republicans voted against it because the cost was not offset elsewhere in the budget. The chamber intends to hold another vote to increase the minimum wage next month, two senior Democratic Senate aides told Yahoo News. Democrats know Republicans will resist. Sensing a wedge issue they can win on in an election year, Democrats intend to  bludgeon them as out of touch and uncompassionate. 

Republicans know this is coming, and they don't want to be caught flat-footed and portrayed again as merely the “Party of No.” So they're going on the offensive.

In back-to-back speeches in Washington on Wednesday, House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor argued for giving state and local governments more control over education dollars; and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called for dismantling federal programs aimed at reducing poverty by turning money over to states. Next week, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan will speak about his own poverty initiatives at a Brookings Institution summit. Late last year, Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah outlined other proposals to increase upward mobility among the working class.

Combined, their efforts give Republicans a platform in the inevitable debates over income inequality and poverty. But it will be difficult for them to change their image overnight. In many ways, the party remains haunted by the still-lingering shadow of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who had particular trouble discussing issues of poverty. On the campaign trail in 2012, Republicans collectively winced when Romney said he wasn’t “concerned about the very poor,” for instance, wording he surely regretted later. His belief that he could “never convince” Americans who receive government assistance that “they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," was a seriously injurious unforced error.

Of course, other Republicans deserve share of the blame as well. Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Republicans have focused on restraining the president's liberal ambitions and adopted policies of austerity. From the repeated approval of welfare-cutting budgets written by Ryan to votes to eliminate entire programs, the Republicans' intended message of economic growth has been clouded by their tea party-driven calls for cuts.

On the messaging front, the party has spent much of 2013 working to repair the damage to the GOP brand caused by comments like Romney's. Since the election, lawmakers in the party have worked to refine the way they speak about issues and have worked to craft a series of policies built around an anti-poverty agenda.

In his speech Wednesday, Cantor promoted school choice programs and went as far as to call on the Senate to adopt a bill called the “Student Success Act,” which passed the House last year and is intended to make it easier for students to leave failing public schools. The bill is part of a larger "Making Life Work" initiative he rolled out last February.

“For many families, living in poverty spans generations. Parents and grandparents struggled to realize the American dream. School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty, and we must act fast before it is too late for too many,” Cantor said.

Rubio delivered his remarks on Capitol Hill right after Cantor, explaining a proposal that would transfer money spent on federal anti-poverty programs to the states through a system of grants, allowing state governments to tailor them to the needs of each region. During his speech, Rubio criticized proposals to raise the minimum wage as not addressing the root causes of poverty.

“Our current government programs at best offer only a partial solution. 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 the real opportunity to move up to better paying jobs. And to do this we have to focus on policies that help our economy create those jobs and that help people overcome the obstacles between them and those jobs. The War on Poverty accomplished neither of these two things.

In a speech last month in Detroit on similar themes, Paul called for creating “economic freedom zones” to spur economic development in the struggling city and Lee outlined a series of conservative reforms he argued would help alleviate poverty and promote upward mobility.

Despite these efforts, Democrats clearly still feel confident enough that Republicans will struggle when discussing these issues, and that they can put points on the board by keeping the debate alive.