WASHINGTON — Key Republican leaders have begun to turn their focus to education policy as their best bet at broadening the appeal of their battered party to women and minority voters.
Leading Republicans — including Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a key Ryan ally — have argued in recent days that an intense focus on high standards and parental choice could restore the reputation for "compassionate conservatism" that faded after George W. Bush was elected on the slogan in 2000.
"Our children are our country's most valuable resource — and yet our current system of education is failing them," McCarthy told BuzzFeed. "We must create a structure and an environment that gives every student an opportunity to succeed and achieve their greatest potential."
Ryan and Rubio — already quietly jostling to be their party's standard-bearer — are expected to make their own cases on the issue when they speak at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner in Washington on Tuesday, outlining their visions for the party going forward based on a focus on education and addressing poverty.
The push to raise national education standards was at the core of the promise of Bush's election, but education and associated anti-poverty efforts have essentially disappeared from the Republican lexicon in the wake of No Child Left Behind, which turned into a political liability for the Republican Party. President Barack Obama also muddied the distinctions by adopting as modified version of Bush's policy as his own "Race to the Top," and keeping his distance from the teachers' unions who are a traditional Democratic constituency. But Republican leaders say they now see an opportunity to turn "education reform" — a loose package that focuses on testing, parental choice, online learning, and hostility to union power — into a message that they believe can appeal to the mothers of small children and people of color.
Since election night, Rubio began pressing a plan to bring what he calls “upward mobility” issues to the forefront, with an emphasis on education and skills development to help poor and minority communities succeed.
“The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them,” he wrote in a much-talked-about Facebook posting. Rubio will also outline his plans in a breakfast conversation with Politico's Mike Allen on Wednesday.
Ryan began the process even before the campaign was over. In early October, his campaign bus rolled up to Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, where he watched children perform a mock constitutional convention — appearing to wipe his eyes afterward, according to the pool reporter inside. Ryan made that visit a major part of his stump speech, railing against teachers unions and calling for school choice.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, education talks are also underway, with Republicans quietly plotting out a course for their party to take up the issue over the next two years.
According to operatives familiar with the strategy, McCarthy, Ryan, and others believe education allows the party to take several steps at once toward fixing their electoral woes.
“It’s a rallying point and its something positive,” one House leadership aide said, adding that focusing on education is “an opportunity for us to regain control from a messaging standpoint as the party that cares about people. Because we do care about people, not just the wealthy.”
The notion that Republican education policy is a sure winner is not an obvious sell. While many minority parents, for instance, regularly tell pollsters that they favor choice, schools and other public institutions are major employers in African-American communities, and Republicans have rarely turned attacks on unions into black votes. There is also a basic tension inside the Republican Party between those who favor a stricter set of national standards and tests and those who reject any federal intervention in local autonomy; and there is a spectrum inside the party on how far officials would go in terms of privatizing public education through a system of vouchers.
And the education-based path forward is just one of several schools of thought within Republican circles: Indeed, it can at times feel as if every “influential operative” or “senior lawmaker” is leading his own band of true believers.
On Sunday, Dan Senor, a Romney-Ryan campaign advisor, gave a preview of the likely 2016 candidates’ remarks to ABC’s This Week, saying, “It's all about the war on poverty.”
Other Republicans — most notably Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will lead the GOP over the next two years at least — see no reason for the party to shift direction at all. McConnell seems increasingly convinced that the GOP’s woes in November have little to do with policy or messaging, and are simply a matter of finding better candidates. And the House Speaker has declared the party’s principles “fundamentally sound” and he seems content to relitigate the battles of Obama’s first term, ranging from a repeat of the debt ceiling debacle to Obamacare.
But education appears to be moving to the fore among the large set of Republicans convinced of the need for change.
At the Harvard Institute of Politics Campaign Managers Conference on Thursday, Republican operatives bemoaned the lack of outreach to minorities in private conversations with BuzzFeed.
“Education — it’s an easy issue because half the Democratic Party agrees with us," said one Republican operative. "We should be leading on the issues that matter to poor and minority communities, not ignoring them."
And the school choice movement — which shares its deep-pocketed Wall Street backing, at least in part, with some Republican officials — has begun to develop a message and an infrastructure that either party could turn to its advantage.
“The numbers don't lie,” said Matt David, Jon Huntsman’s campaign manager now advising StudentsFirst, the group founded by former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. “This election proved we need a message that appeals to minorities. Republicans have an opportunity to make inroads there on education reform. It doesn't require a shift in our position; it requires making it our priority.”
“Our education system is failing our kids to the point where top Democratic leaders are stepping up and challenging the system, like Mayors Villaraigosa, Booker, and Kevin Johnson," he added. "Republicans need to step up quickly before we lose the issue.”
Even former Romney aides are urging the party to reconsider its positions after the election, encouraging an emphasis on schools and a softening on immigration.
"We need to be the party of compassionate conservatives again, not self-deportation," said one former aide to the Republican nominee. Former Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said last week that he regretted his candidate's turn to the right on immigration during the Republican primary.
But even if education-minded reformers have their way, they aren't promising a significant, or even perceptible, shift in voting patterns in the next elections. They acknowledge that Republican Party’s woes with minority and female voters have been decades in the making, and distrust runs deep, particularly amongst black and Latino voters.
“There is no solution in the short-term,” McCarthy acknowledged last week.
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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