“I am not concerned about the very poor,” Mitt Romney once said.
That line embodied much of what was wrong with Romney’s ill-fated presidential run. But if the debate over unemployment benefits is any indication, the Republican Party hasn’t learned much from Romney’s errors.
After the 2012 elections Republicans vowed to close the ”empathy gap” in order to reach a wider group of voters. But party leaders have forcefully opposed basic policies that would make the poor and unemployed better off, even while ostensibly promoting their own anti-poverty agenda.
But the GOP’s stance on unemployment insurance and other social programs doesn’t just hurt hurt the poor and out of work, it further damages its political brand.
Republicans appeared to have an opportunity to make inroads with young people in 2012, considering that people under 35 felt the brunt of the Great Recession. But young voters simply don’t see eye to eye with the GOP on economic policy.
About half of young voters believe that GOP economic policies caused the recession in the first place, according to a report released by the College Republican National Committee. On the two biggest economic issues right now — the minimum wage and unemployment insurance — young voters side with Democrats (two-thirds want the minimum wage upped and six in ten want jobless benefits temporarily extended), according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
Romney was emblematic of this problem, taking only 33 percent of the youth vote in 2012. One study showed Romney could have won if he simply split the youth vote with President Obama.
As a result, Republicans have sought to distance themselves from Romney and the negative perception of the GOP’s economic policies. Lawmakers like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor have rolled out a variety of conservative programs, which they say would help the poor and underprivileged.
Unfortunately, Republicans appear to only be interested in talking about poverty reform, not so interested in helping those in poverty.
Ryan has been talking a lot about fighting poverty. But he negotiated a budget deal which allowed unemployment insurance to expire, apparently out of fear that including it would have rankled Republicans who believe that the benefits discourage those out of work from looking for jobs.
Cantor, the House majority leader, recently said his party must find a way to break the “vicious cycle of poverty.” Two days later he took to the House floor to say that the Republican Party was focused on “employment, not unemployment.”
The GOP has been trying to shake the ghost of Mitt Romney for so long, that it is almost comical to see them stumble so badly in their handling of emergency unemployment insurance.
If Republicans actually want to help the poor and jobless, and expand their party’s appeal beyond the base, they’ll need to be more serious about re-thinking their economic policies.
Kristian Ramos is a public relations strategist living in Washington, D.C. He's worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Kristian began his career at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy groups in the country.