Editor’s Note: Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass, a policy shop developing a new conservative economic agenda. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Earlier this summer, a highly unpopular President Joe Biden floundered in the White House. He was facing multiple crises – Russia’s war in Ukraine, crime on America’s streets, record migrant crossings at the southern border, surging gas prices and inflation and stalled economic growth.
Polls and forecasts pointed to a Republican Party romp in the upcoming midterms. But Republican candidates failed to capitalize on that momentum, and party strategists are beginning to sweat about their likely margin in the House of Representatives and their chances of winning a Senate majority at all.
Candidates and incumbents don’t decide whether gas prices are going up or down, but one important factor they can control is the agenda they present to voters – their broad priorities and their actual plans. It’s here that Republicans seem determined to sabotage their own chances, by refusing to say anything at all.
According to Axios, in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly adopted the view that his party should be solely focused on all the “terrible” things the Democrats are doing. Asked what Republicans would do with a congressional majority, he responded, “I’ll let you know when we take it back.”
In the House of Representatives, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Banks have made major efforts to develop proposals, but with two months to go before the election, McCarthy’s “Commitment to America” website says nothing but “Returning soon…”
Of course, criticism of an opponent’s failings is an important part of any campaign. But an affirmative agenda is the way that candidates demonstrate their own values and priorities, prove their understanding of voters’ problems and a commitment to finding solutions, and model how they would use the power they’re working so hard to acquire.
The point of an education plan isn’t to show mastery of education policy or to persuade the very few voters who will pore over its details. The point is to show where education ranks on your list of priorities, what you think is wrong with our schools, how good ones should look and what you think government can do about it.
An agenda might also help to explain how this time will be different. Many voters are unhappy with Democrats and itching for change, but it has only been a few years since they were sufficiently fed up with the Republican Congress to throw it out and bring the Democrats in. Will voters actually be ready to make the switch again so soon?
Here’s one version of a conservative midterm agenda that might appeal to voters – focused on the simple theme of helping working families.
This help should begin by replacing the existing Child Tax Credit with a more generous family benefit: $250 to $400 per child per month paid to families who are also earning income of their own. Parents should get a 20% bonus if they are married.
That’s a policy, but as importantly for a candidate it communicates values: the importance of raising kids, working to support them, and getting and staying married. Opponents will surely argue that a marriage bonus is perverse – it’s single parents who need the most help – but a debate over rewarding marriage versus subsidizing its collapse is exactly the sort that conservatives should welcome.
And lest all this seem pie-in-the-sky, three Republican senators have already introduced such a proposal, with support from a wide range of conservative organizations and commentators.
Next, candidates should promise to give workers more power in the labor market, so that they can earn more and better support their families. One element of that plan should be raising federal minimum wage. Another element should be imposing a robust “e-verify” system that requires employers to confirm the legal status of their employees, with stiff penalties for hiring people who are in the country illegally. Less skilled and lower-wage American workers often suffer when they have to compete against a large pool of undocumented workers willing to work for less, often under the table and in sub-standard conditions; they have more bargaining power when employers lose that option.
Enforce the law, raise wages – not complicated. And yes, this already has a GOP proposal in the Senate as well.
Empowering workers also requires equipping them for success, which our education system typically fails to do. According to research that American Compass compiled from the Department of Education and Federal Reserve, only one-in-five young Americans goes smoothly from high school to college to career – they’re much more likely to never even enroll in college, or to drop out or else land in a job that doesn’t require their degree.
So, Republicans have rightly excoriated Biden’s plan to spend approximately $500 billion forgiving the debt of college-goers while doing nothing to fix the unaffordable higher education system. But that criticism would have more weight if paired with some fixes.
Policymakers have to eliminate the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies flowing to higher education, little of which goes to useful instruction. Instead, offer a simple grant worth half the cost of tuition at a public university. Then, take that savings and invest it in other pathways that connect young people with employers and help them gain valuable skills and on-the-job training.
A bachelor’s degree is fine, but about 60% of young American workers (age 25 to 34) don’t have one. Millions more Americans would be positioned for success if we focused on getting them to age 20 with work experience, an industry-recognized credential and savings in the bank.
Finally, it’s long past time to protect kids on the internet the same way we try to do in the physical world. According to a Pew Research Center study, nearly half of kids report being online “almost constantly,” where they are at risk of encountering all manner of illicit content and exploitation. As their time spent on social media skyrockets, they are also suffering an unprecedented decline in mental health.
Neither parents nor our laws would allow kids into the real-world equivalent of these online spaces, but many parents are overwhelmed and ill-equipped, and our laws – particularly around social media – are hopelessly outdated, having been written in the 1990s when “online” meant listening to the crackles and squeals of a modem establishing its connection through the family phone line.
A comprehensive agenda here would ensure that online platforms must verify the ages of users and then prohibit those platforms from showing minors inappropriate content. Social media activity for minors would be restricted, and targeted advertising would be banned. Silicon Valley would scream, and no one should care – when it comes to kids, we don’t ask whether a policy is good for growth or innovation or profits, we ask whether it’s good for kids.
A winning GOP agenda might encompass other priorities – from winning the economic competition with China to bringing back US manufacturing to developing our natural resources. Candidates don’t all have to focus on the same thing. But in the upcoming election, while not being Democrats still looks pretty good, it may not be enough. Support families, empower workers and protect kids. America could get behind that.