On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor swung by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to offer yet another "rebrand" for Republicans—the latest in a string of efforts to reinvent the struggling party. Speaking on the top floor of AEI's office in downtown Washington, D.C., Cantor steered clear of culture-war issues and refrained from talk about lowering taxes, which has become the party’s sole policy prescription over the past several years. His speech—focused on education, workers' woes, and immigration—lacked details behind the broad goals he outlined. But Cantor's vision for the Aggrieved Old Party showed a shift in emphasis, a way forward for a party that has failed to convince voters that it has an economic vision for the middle class.
The biggest news from Cantor's speech was his oblique endorsement of the DREAM Act. "A good place to start is with the kids," Cantor said while discussing the need for immigration reform. "One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home." However, the House majority leader fell short of supporting more comprehensive measures emerging from a bipartisan group of senators. It's nevertheless a marked turn from December 2010, when he was among the 160 House Republicans who voted down the DREAM Act. Cantor also called for an expansion of the STEM Jobs Act, which would allow more immigrants with graduate degrees in science and technology to remain in the country.
The majority leader spent the bulk of his speech addressing education and the struggles of working class families, the bread and butter of Democratic policy speeches. He called for a "weighted student formula" that would allow students in low-performing schools to cross district barriers to attend high-performing schools, even raising the liberal beacon of San Francisco as a model. This could simply be a restatement of conservatives' typical calls for school vouchers, but Cantor's phrasing suggests a more expansive view of school selection. Romney made a shrouded reference to a similar idea of empowering poor families with school choices during the campaign, which Slate's Dana Goldstein described as the "most radical, furthest left idea currently in the mainstream education debate."
The representative from Virginia also called for more information on the ballooning price of college tuition, suggesting that colleges be required to provide breakdowns on costs so that prospective students and parents can weigh the price before they take out thousands of dollars in loans. "Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major," he said. "What if parents had access to clear and understandable breakdowns between academic studies and amenities?" It's a sensible proposition, and Cantor endorsed a plan proposed by Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden to that effect. Except the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency tasked with protecting borrows, has already floated even easier plans. The only trouble is that Cantor's Republican colleagues in the Senate have fought with all their might to prevent the CFPB from operating at full capacity.
Cantor devoted a chunk of his speech to the troubles families face in balancing their work lives with their family obligations. "Too many parents have to weigh whether they can afford to miss work even for half a day to see their child off on the first day of school or attend a parent-teacher conference," he said. It's nice to hear a Republican actually tackle the concerns of the working poor. But his suggested solution wouldn't do much to solve the problem. Allowing workers to rearrange their schedules grants extra flexibility, but it doesn't offer extra time with the kids. Instead, the simplest solution would be to align the U.S. with the rest of the developed world and require companies to offer sick time and paid maternity leave.
To be sure, much of what Cantor said was standard-issue politicking. He devoted a chunk of his address to bemoaning the evils of a medical-device tax in the Affordable Care Act, a specious attack that The New Republic's Alec MacGillis thoroughly debunked yesterday. And Cantor hardly backed down from the debt scaremongering that has defined Republicans during the Obama era, claiming "there is no greater moral imperative than to reduce the mountain of debt facing us."
Taxes, regulation of business, and spending cuts were left aside Tuesday, but there's little reason to believe Cantor is ready to abandon his staunch opposition to liberals on these issues, which have elevated him to the presumed leader of the House's Tea Party wing. Yet the rhetorical feint may represent a new tactic for Republicans. Mitt Romney failed to present the country with a convincing economic vision to tackle the middle class' economic woes. He and Paul Ryan could only muster an argument for fewer taxes and fewer regulations in the name of easing business' uncertainty; the rest was left to the trickle-down-economics fairy. But branching out on education, work-home life balance, and easing immigration are the sorts of policies where bipartisan efforts are theoretically possible, and ones that Republicans could use to reintroduce themselves to voters. "We do intend to follow up with some policy proposals and legislation, working with our committees to move forward on many of these issues," Cantor said during the question-and-answer portion of the event. We await the detail.