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The GOP Should Be the Party of Parents

National Review

October 12, 2023

Republicans looking to expand their party’s coalition have a problem. The public identifies them above all with Donald Trump, who is decidedly unpopular. Voters who can possibly stand Trump (and even some who can’t) are already Republicans. And when Republicans talk about something other than Trump, it is generally the Democrats. So swing voters know that the GOP staunchly opposes the Left, but what does the party offer them instead?

Republicans avoid that subject in part because they are divided about it. Among elected Republicans, as well as in the Right’s intellectual circles, there are now deep disagreements about spending, taxes, entitlements, trade, defense, foreign policy, the role of government, and many other issues that once mostly brought Republicans together. It is harder to envision a unifying policy agenda than it has been in decades, and Republicans have proposed precious few ideas of late.

These two challenges — the absence of clear substantive appeal to voters and the absence of coalition-unifying issues — would need to be addressed together. And addressing them might require not so much agreeing on proposals as agreeing on a growth constituency to which Republicans should direct a variety of appeals.

If Republicans were paying attention, they would see that just such a constituency is now looking for a home and a voice. It is defined not by ideology, race, ethnicity, or geography but by a demonstrated investment in the future of America. Parents could be the next great Republican voting bloc, if the party would only try.

Obviously, not all parents are up for grabs. About 40 percent of American households have minor children living in the home, and a majority of parents are reliable Republicans or Democrats. But about a third are independents, and, according to a 2022 Harris poll, education and parental rights are the issues with the greatest potential to sway their votes. Several recent elections, especially the Virginia governor’s race in 2021, have demonstrated that potential.

Republicans may have a propitious opportunity to win over parents because, in recent years, the Democrats have systematically squandered the advantage they once had on education. Several polls since 2021 have found that more voters, both nationwide and in key battleground states, now trust Republicans more than Democrats on education — reversing a decades-old trend. The Democrats gave parents the impression that their children were the presumed property of unhinged progressive activists and have paid a price.

Republicans should be careful not to respond to that opening by recruiting schoolchildren into a counter-crusade. Pure anti-wokeness won’t be much more attractive to these parents than its opposite. They’re more likely to respond to an agenda geared to their practical concerns and hopes for their kids. That could begin with an education platform but reach beyond it into economics and culture. Done right, it could also give Republicans a chance to begin reunifying their fractured factions by focusing them on a coherent constituency that can be approached from different angles.

Conservatives inclined to arguments for market competition could focus, as they long have, on educational choice; opportunities and concrete proposals abound on that front as never before. Indeed, the past year has likely been the most successful in the history of the educational-choice movement. As Nicole Stelle Garnett and Michael Q. McShane recently noted in these pages (“The School-Choice Moment,” August 28), legislative sessions in 2023 alone saw significant educational-choice bills passed in Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio. The prior year saw similar legislation in West Virginia and Arizona and an expansion of Florida’s existing education-savings accounts. Conservative activists have lost the knack for talking about success, but these achievements — and the increased public openness to educational choice in the wake of the Covid pandemic that has made them possible — could be the foundation for a renewed Republican approach to education. There is room for greater federal flexibility and support for experiments at the state level and, up to a point, at the national level. Such efforts could also be paired with a higher-education agenda that seeks to curtail the inflationary effects of some key federal student-loan policies and makes more federal data on college costs and employment outcomes available to families.

But the opportunity extends beyond an education agenda and beyond purely market-driven reforms. Conservatives eager to take on other rising costs of living for families could advance expanded child benefits — whether by proposing to grow the existing child credit or through a broader reform such as the one proposed by Senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah) in recent years. It would combine existing federal per-child benefits into one monthly benefit available to families that meet a modest work requirement.

Senator J. D. Vance (R., Ohio) has proposed to fully subsidize the medical costs involved in childbirth and thereby protect economically vulnerable new parents from the high and sometimes unexpected expenses of early maternal and neonatal care. The mechanism for such coverage would matter. Vance has shown a willingness to get into policy details and build legislative coalitions in other arenas, so he may have more to say in the coming months on how this could be done. But the general idea has promise as a way to lower the costs confronting families and as part of the case against abortion in a post-Roe world.

Offering policy ideas of broader interest to parents and would-be parents could be a further means of buttressing the case for life. The federal adoption tax credit should be made refundable, for instance, so that it would be available to families with lower incomes and tax liabilities. That would enable many more families to afford the one-time costs associated with adoption. States should make similar benefits available and simplify the legal process involved.

Social conservatives are also well positioned to advance a more comprehensive case for parental authority in the lives of children. Giving parents more control over the kinds of technologies and virtual spaces to which their children have access has been an increasingly potent issue. Restricting minors’ access to online pornography, for instance, and imposing age limits on social media are ideas with strong appeal at both the state and the federal levels. And reasserting the role of parents in key curricular decisions in public schools has proven to be a powerful political issue in a number of states in recent years — most notably in purple Virginia.

These cultural questions naturally circle back to core education policy, as educational choice can enhance parental control in education. And indeed, all of these proposals fit into a larger agenda for parents. Different kinds of conservatives with different kinds of priorities — from the more libertarian to the more culturally conservative or those eager for a more assertive role for government — can pick and choose from them or prioritize them differently. What they have in common is a substantive focus on parents, and so the potential to speak to new voters in appealing terms.

Such an appeal requires an inviting tone. Parents constantly mix worry with hope. They are not a natural audience for the bitter brew of panic and despair that now too often emanates from the right. Parents who share that outlook are likely already Republican voters. Those who don’t will be persuaded not by fear and loathing of the Left but by a practical approach that suits their aspirations and concerns and is oriented to the future — as parents naturally are.

And, of course, getting the hang of offering an inviting aspirational agenda would serve any effort to expand the Right’s coalition quite apart from reaching parents in particular. Our politics has been mostly stuck at 50–50 since the 1990s, with two minority parties, each seemingly more eager to hunt heretics than to seek converts. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have found a formula for breaking the deadlock, because each has sought to frighten the country about the other rather than to offer voters an appealing governing vision. Finding a way out of that rut must begin with focusing on potential converts — on a constituency that could be won if approached in the right way.

For Republicans, the most promising path for such growth would be a constituency that crosses traditional demographic lines and is united by a commitment to the rising generation. To win the future, the GOP should strive to become the party of parents.