The Right Stuff

The Reformers Trying to Remake the Republican Party

(Courtesy Reuters)

This past January, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives held their annual winter retreat at a waterfront resort in Cambridge, Maryland. Their aim was to debate the party’s 2014 agenda among themselves before committing publicly to any big-ticket proposals. The meeting featured panels on health care, immigration, jobs, taxes, and more -- capped with an appearance by the former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, whose rousing speech party leaders hoped would encourage a spirit of team play.

Yet the most striking part of the gathering was a presentation given by Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who would lose his seat six months later in a stunning GOP primary upset. Cantor’s talk was about connecting with the middle class, and his message should have been obvious: most Americans don’t own their own businesses; instead, they depend on someone else for a paycheck.

This seemed to come as news, however, to the lawmakers in the audience who had swooned over Mitt Romney’s celebration of entrepreneurs during the 2012 presidential election. Many of them still subscribed to the assertion of his running mate, Paul Ryan, that the world was divided into entrepreneurial “makers” and government-dependent “takers.” Cantor told the group, however, that the majority of Americans do not even aspire to start their own businesses; instead, they dream of “a good job with an income that will allow them to support their family.” Cantor went on to chide Republicans for failing to reach out to the vast and troubled middle class, a great number of whom had ended up voting to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012. “We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,” he said.

The very fact that Cantor felt it necessary to explain such an elementary truth of modern American politics speaks volumes about the present state of the Republican Party. Although the GOP has been successful at the congressional level, its candidates for president have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, in large part because they failed to attract many of the millions of voters who are not entrepreneurs. Unless things change, the landscape could look just as bleak in 2016.

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