The New Republican Reformers

Ryan, Rubio and GOP governors are promoting fresh ideas for growth and upward mobility.

Their target is the GOP, but they are not angry liberals bent on destroying it. They are reform-minded Republican leaders intent on strengthening it.

These Republicans are applying conservative principles to 21st-century challenges, focused on middle-class concerns like lowering costs and improving access to college, modernizing health care and reforming the tax code. They aim to broaden prosperity's reach through markets and merit, not government and corporate cronyism. They're also concentrating on helping the poor by changing Washington's dizzying assortment of antipoverty programs to emphasize work and make the safety net more effective and sustainable.

The reformers' success in providing a rough outline of their vision will affect the midterm election. And their ability to craft detailed proposals and marshal a consensus could well determine the GOP's long-term viability.

Among these figures, Rep. Paul Ryan —who led the GOP in backing vital reforms of entitlements like Medicare—is devoting the most time to studying why successful grass-roots antipoverty programs work. He's quietly visited dozens of effective efforts around the country on a tour noted for its deliberate avoidance of press coverage. At his direction, the House Budget Committee prepared "The War On Poverty: 50 Years Later," a summary of the dizzying array of programs on which trillions of tax dollars have been lavished while millions remain stuck in poverty. Mr. Ryan is working on a book distilling what he's learned and outlining a conservative agenda for upward mobility and greater opportunity.

He and other reformers, like Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, are also focused on spurring stronger economic growth. In remarks March 10 at Google's D.C. office, Mr. Rubio sketched proposals to increase innovation by making more wireless spectrum available for businesses and consumers, step up coordination between government research and private companies to speed ideas to market, and promote trade by knocking down barriers to U.S. goods and services. He also talked about ways to encourage domestic energy production, simplify the tax code to encourage investment, and reduce the regulatory burden on job creation.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee argued in an eloquent speech at the Heritage Foundation in November that the liberal War on Poverty has undermined the very institutions—family, community and the mediating structures of civil society that stand between the government and the individual—that are most effective in helping people rise. He has proposed a package of reforms to taxes, welfare, higher education, transportation and federal comp-time regulations that hamper worker flexibility.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Republican Governor Association Chairman Chris Christie and dozens of other GOP governors are crafting answers to meet the needs of their state's poor. Most would welcome Mr. Rubio's suggestion in a Jan. 8 speech that antipoverty programs be combined into one fund and given to states to administer. Governors who have led on issues of poverty and growth include Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Ohio's John Kasich, Michigan's Rick Snyder and Wisconsin's Scott Walker. Interestingly, all come from modest backgrounds—the sons, respectively, of immigrant parents, a mail carrier, a dry cleaner and a minister.

A growing network of scribblers and thinkers supports their efforts. The Ethics and Public Policy Center is home to the entitlement expert James Capretta, senior fellow Peter Wehner and editor Yuval Levin, whose National Affairs publishes the who's who of reform conservatives. The American Enterprise Institute, led by Arthur Brooks, houses a number of scholars, including Michael Strain and James Pethokoukis, who write on economics, labor markets and commerce. The Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas and Avik Roy roll out provocative ideas on finance, health care and entitlements. And there are the contributions of many writers to this paper's editorial page.

Conservative reformers seek to broaden opportunity, increase prosperity for every American, restore the value of work, and strengthen markets, competition and choice. If successful, their efforts would help the GOP among middle-class voters.

It is hard to overstate how much the Republican Party is hurt by the persistent belief of many voters that its candidates are out of touch and do not care about people like them. But when standard bearers like Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush erode that negative perception, the GOP takes the White House. The importance of winning and governing well should focus more Republicans on this movement's work.

A version of this article appeared March 27, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The New Republican Reformers and online at WSJ.com.