This summer, in an op-ed for U.S. News Weekly, I explained how the Republican Party could use libertarian populism to show voters they really care. Now, as Republican lawmakers work to settle on an agenda for the upcoming year, they have the chance to put "helping regular Americans" front and center.
In March, 68 percent of poll respondents told CNN the Republican Party favors the rich over the poor or middle class. This isn't just an inconvenient misperception – it's an existential crisis for the GOP that could destroy its electoral chances going forward.
Don't believe me? Take a look back at what happened last November. Exit polls asked voters what the most important quality in a candidate was to them. Among those who answered "shares my values," "strong leader" or "has a vision for the future," Mitt Romney won a majority of the votes. But among the one-fifth of the electorate who thought "cares about people like me" was the most important quality, President Obama took a staggering 81 percent, enough to swing the entire election his way.
Months later, little has changed. Seven out of 10 respondents to an ABC News/Washington Post poll in April said the Republican Party was "out of touch" with the concerns of most people in the United States today. And earlier this month, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that Democrats continue to win on "looking out for the middle class."
Meanwhile, Republicans win on "dealing with the economy," long America's top political issue, but even that's not enough to turn people around on the GOP. Just 28 percent of respondents in the same poll had a positive view of the party, compared to 40 percent who had a positive view of the Democrats. Clearly, Republican competence on the economy is being trumped by a perceived lack of empathy for the plight of regular Americans.
This has to be addressed. Young people, who will make up the bulk of tomorrow's electorate, are by far the most sour toward the GOP. In a study for the College Republican National Committee, researchers including myself found that 18- to 29-year-olds associate the Republican Party with words like closed-minded, racist, rigid and old-fashioned. Unless this view is combatted, Republicans risk losing the next generation for good.
In the post-George W. Bush era, "compassionate conservatism" has become synonymous in many people's minds with a disregard for running deficits. But compassion does not have to mean fiscal irresponsibility. In fact, it's concern over the burden being passed along to future generations that makes so many people so uncomfortable with the size of our national debt. More importantly, it is a genuine belief that a thriving private sector lifts all boats – especially the smallest – that drives most conservatives' support for the free market.
Republicans may already be offering the policy solutions this country needs. But if the GOP wants people to listen to its ideas, it needs to start by showing them it understands the problems those ideas are supposed to be trying to solve.