Political Necessity Forces GOP Into Middle-Class Income Debate As the economy improves, political debates change. President Obama says it's time to focus on stagnant middle-class incomes. Republicans are trying to come up with their agenda for the middle class.
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Political Necessity Forces GOP Into Middle-Class Income Debate

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Political Necessity Forces GOP Into Middle-Class Income Debate

Political Necessity Forces GOP Into Middle-Class Income Debate

Political Necessity Forces GOP Into Middle-Class Income Debate

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As the economy improves, political debates change. President Obama says it's time to focus on stagnant middle-class incomes. Republicans are trying to come up with their agenda for the middle class.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As the economy improves, the political debate is changing. President Obama says it's time to focus on middle-class incomes that aren't improving. That sounds like comfortable political turf for Democrats, but Republicans are joining the debate, trying to come up with their own agenda for the middle class. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Not so long ago, leading Republicans called any discussion of income inequality class warfare. Mitt Romney famously said the income gap was so divisive, it should be discussed only in, quote, "quiet rooms." But Republican rhetoric is changing at a head-spinning pace. Today, when Republicans talk about wage stagnation or the growing gap between rich and poor, they sound like - well, Democrats. Let's start with Romney himself.

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MITT ROMNEY: Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse. And there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.

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SENATOR TED CRUZ: It is true that the top 1 percent are doing great under Barack Obama.

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JEB BUSH: The recovery has been everywhere but in the family paychecks.

LIASSON: You also heard Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush. Those complaints are more than just the latest anti-Obama talking points. It's the beginning of a real shift in Republican thinking, says conservative Ramesh Ponnuru.

RAMESH PONNURU: It means that Republicans are waking up to the diminishing returns that they're getting from following their old playbook on economic matters - cutting taxes on investments, increasing economic growth and that'll work for everybody. That message is less and less in step with the middle class.

LIASSON: Political necessity is forcing Republicans to play on what's traditionally been Democratic turf. On Election Day in 2012, a whopping 80 percent of voters told pollsters that Romney could not relate to the problems of people like them.

PONNURU: That is symptomatic of a middle-class problem that Republicans have had.

LIASSON: Republicans are acknowledging that the next election will be about why it's become so hard to move up the economic ladder. It's no accident that Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio's new book is called "American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity For Everyone." Jeb Bush's new PAC is called the Right to Rise. Last week in Detroit, Bush gave his first big policy speech and said that the opportunity gap was the defining issue of our time.

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BUSH: Today, Americans across the country are frustrated. They see only a small portion of the population riding the economy's up escalator.

LIASSON: Bush didn't offer many specific solutions to this problem. He said he'll be doing that over the next several months. So far Republicans seem to have learned the music, but they still need the lyrics. A group of conservative thinkers known as Reformacons have floated a bunch of ideas, including expanding the child tax credit and streamlining the system of education tax credits. But crafting a Republican agenda for the middle class may involve moving away from Republican orthodoxy on taxes and social programs. Former Bush speechwriter and Reformacon ally Michael Gerson says that won't be easy.

MICHAEL GERSON: Because the default value of a lot of Republican rhetoric is really the Reagan rhetoric of the 1980s that has to do with tax rates and regulatory environment. And Republicans will always think those things are important, but they're going to have to fill out something that's broader than the Reagan message of the 1980s.

LIASSON: Of course, Republicans will also have to compete with the Democrats' middle-class economic agenda. And it's a big one - free community college, paid family leave, higher minimum wage, universal preschool, expanded tax credits - former Clinton policy aide Bill Galston wonders if Republicans can develop enough credibility in this area.

BILL GALSTON: It takes a long time for political parties to develop reputations and almost as long to shed their reputations. The Republican Party has been seen for a long time as a party that inclines towards wealthy Americans. So Republicans will have to be leaning against that perception pretty hard to move it.

LIASSON: Something new on the Republican side is needed, says Gerson - a deep rethink, like what Bill Clinton did for the Democrats in 1992 after they had lost the White House just about as many times as Republicans have now.

GERSON: Republicans don't have to outbid Democrats, but they have to show that they're sincere about offering a compelling, hopeful alternative in an economy that has become complex, difficult and frustrating for many people who are working hard and not getting ahead.

LIASSON: It's not clear yet exactly what the Republican candidates will offer. But they seem determined to compete with Democrats to convince voters they do have the answers to the biggest problem facing the American economy - that hard work is no longer a guarantee of making it into the middle class or staying there. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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