Republicans Take Back Education for Campaign Message
Boyer, Dave, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
House Republicans will promote themselves at home next week as friends of education, a message they have repackaged drastically since the days when Newt Gingrich and his troops promised to abolish the federal Education Department.
Over their weeklong recess, incumbents will stress to their constituents that Republicans are devoted to returning as much money as possible to states and local school boards with fewer federal strings attached.
"It's the No. 1 issue in the country," said Rep. Bob Schaffer, Colorado Republican and co-chairman of a panel asked to develop an education message for House Republicans.
In this year's battle to retain control of the House, there's ample reason for Republicans to turn to education as a winning issue. Education is usually among the top three issues for voters, and Democrats traditionally have carried the topic as their own.
Polling conducted in late March by Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates was encouraging for Republicans: Given a choice between a Republican candidate who emphasizes moving dollars from Washington to the classroom and a Democratic candidate who advocates affordable prescription drugs for seniors, potential voters favored the Republican, 44 percent to 42 percent.
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republicans' communications strategy, said Republicans have improved from a 22-point deficit against Democrats on the issue of education last May to 9 points in the most recent polling.
"People are starting to see that Republicans are committed to making public education work," Mr. Watts said. "I want to compete [against Democrats] in every arena."
The GOP essentially is trying to put a friendlier face on a familiar theme, that education is best managed at the state and local levels. But Republicans' attempt to get across that message in 1995, when they took control of the House, proved disastrous.
At the time, Speaker Newt Gingrich and the class of freshman Republicans led the call to abolish the Education Department. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole campaigned on the theme in 1996.
Many voters got the impression that Republicans were anti-education. Mr. Dole lost, and House Republicans lost seats in each of the last two election cycles.
"The underlying philosophy was correct," Mr. Schaffer said. "But attacking the department in such harsh and negative terms was misinterpreted."
Now Republicans have a different approach: They want to divert as much money from Washington to local school districts to improve education and reduce waste in the federal bureaucracy. …