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Ponnuru: GOP members reflect on what went wrong

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

“We cannot just be a party that protects the rich,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said of his fellow Republicans. “The rich can protect themselves.”

Only a few weeks after an electoral drubbing, three leading Republicans have settled on very similar accounts of what went wrong for their party. Jindal, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are all talking about middle-class economic concerns. All three men seem to have realized that failing to address these concerns was the party’s biggest mistake, and rectifying that mistake is now its biggest challenge.

Republicans have been vigorously debating the meaning of last month’s election. Some argue that it wasn’t a catastrophe requiring major change, just a setback. For them, the party’s most urgent task is to refine its techniques for getting out the vote. Others say that the party needs to support comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to Hispanics. Still others counsel the party to be less conservative on moral issues. Some also say the party went astray by nominating a wealthy moderate, Mitt Romney, for president.

Jindal, Rubio and Ryan, three of the top potential Republican candidates for president in 2016, have not explicitly rejected any of these theories. They may believe some of them, at least a bit. Rubio, for example, has been trying to change the party’s approach to immigration. But their statements since the election have concentrated on strengthening the party’s economic message – which is the true root of its electoral problems.

Rubio and Ryan devoted their speeches at the Jack Kemp Foundation’s annual dinner last week to the topics of upward mobility and the American dream. Ryan, while praising Romney, distanced himself from his former running mate’s “47 percent” gaffe by saying, “We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American.”

Republicans are good at representing the concerns of entrepreneurs, he said, but fall short in explaining how they would strengthen families and communities and help people lift themselves out of poverty.

Rubio spoke more specifically about middle-class anxieties. He called for revamping federal aid policies to make it easier for people to get an education without taking “the traditional four-year college route.”

He also touted his bipartisan legislation on college aid: “Before they take out a student loan, let’s make sure students and their parents know how long it will take them to complete their education, what their likelihood of completion is, how much they can expect to make after graduation, and how much their monthly payment on the loan is going to be.”

Jindal has been making the same basic case in interviews. He complained after the election that too many voters associate Republicans with big business. He told me recently that “we were the party that opposed the president instead of providing constructive alternatives.” Although he dislikes the health care law President Barack Obama is putting in place, he also said, “Americans are rightly worried about rising health care costs.”

Even the language the three men are using these days is similar. “We need to show folks that we are an aspirational party,” Jindal said. “We need to be the party that represents the upward mobility,” a party that believes “every single American has the same American dream, and we want to help them.”

Liberal commentators have pointed out that this rhetoric hasn’t been matched by much in the way of innovative new policies. None of these men has proposed that Republicans push for a larger child tax credit with the same passion they bring to lowering taxes on capital, for example. But they are heading in the right direction.

Another complaint from some of the liberal reviewers – that these Republicans still hold a range of views that are fairly typical of their party – is beside the point. As Jindal put it, there’s no need for a second Democratic Party. He’s interested in “coming up with smart policy solutions, connecting that to the aspirations of all voters, and going out there.”

Going out where? Jindal, the next chairman of the Republican Governors Association, may have provided a clue when he said, “Republican governors are going to provide the examples of leadership.” Watch your backs, Messrs. Rubio and Ryan.

For now, though, any rivalry among this group is between the lines, and what they have in common is striking. Judging from some of its rising stars, the Republican Party is learning the right lessons from the election, and learning them pretty rapidly at that.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.

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