At the House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Md., Thursday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called on GOP lawmakers to take a new approach to the nation's economic anxieties. Dividing his remarks into four categories -- Obamacare, jobs and economic growth, the middle-class squeeze, and opportunity -- Cantor's goal was to try to identify specific problems middle-class families are facing and spark discussion on conservative solutions that might help those families.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cantor's presentation was that it included a recognition that in the past Republicans have focused more on the nation's employers than employees, have talked about small business owners and entrepreneurs to the exclusion of the far greater number of Americans who don't own their own businesses.
"Ninety percent of Americans work for someone else," Cantor said, according to a source in the room. "Most of them not only will never own their own business, for most of them that isn't their dream. Their dream is to have a good job, with an income that will allow them to support their family."
"We shouldn't miss the chance to talk to these people," Cantor continued, according to the source, "which is why we will present and pass our plans to relieve the middle class squeeze."
What was extraordinary about that portion of Cantor's presentation was not that it was out of place -- it was entirely on-target for a political party hoping to win elections in 2014 -- but that it came six years into the economic downturn, and decades into a protracted decline in middle-class standards of living. Could it actually have taken Republicans that long to realize they should address such problems, especially when Democrats have made huge gains appealing directly to middle-class voters?
Apparently, yes. And even now, not all House Republicans are entirely on board. "It's something that's been growing and taking time for members to get comfortable with," says a House GOP aide, "because they did spend the last decade talking about small business owners."
In fairness to Cantor, it should be said that he has been moving toward a middle-class agenda for more than a year, not only in speeches but in legislation like the SKILLS Act and the Working Families Flexibility Act. So his remarks at the retreat did not reflect a born-yesterday revelation.
Also, Cantor's presentation was just one part of a much larger current of conservative thinking -- in Congress, among political strategists, in think tanks, journalism -- urging Republicans to devote more effort to middle-class concerns. But the fact is, the GOP as a party has been out of sorts with a large swath of middle-class voters for quite a while. So many will welcome the new emphasis among House GOP lawmakers as better late than never. But some will still ask: What took them so long?
* The last two paragraphs of this post have been re-written to reflect Cantor's earlier work toward a middle-class agenda.