Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, participates in a news conference in the Capitol with other Senate Republicans to discuss the budget on May 16, 2012. Photograph by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, participates in a news conference in the Capitol with other Senate Republicans to discuss the budget on May 16, 2012. Photograph by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, has a new proposal for tax reform that includes an expansion of the child tax credit. Elsewhere I have defended this idea. Here I want to talk about why it's an important political step for Republicans.

Expanding the child credit is popular. In May, the Republican polling company McLaughlin and Associates asked likely voters what they thought of expanding the current $1,000-per-child credit to $4,000, which is similar to Lee's plan. The results: 58 percent approved, 32 percent disapproved. Slightly more people "strongly approved" (33 percent) than disapproved at all. That's more support than Republicans get for many of the tax cuts they promote, such as the one on capital gains.

It's popular with swing groups and groups that don't typically vote Republican. Support was higher among people who make less than $92,000 a year than among people who make more. Voters under 40, whom Republicans lost in the last election, were slightly more likely to support it (60 percent) than average. Support was higher among Hispanics (66 percent) and blacks (73 percent) than among whites. A whopping 83 percent of single mothers liked it.

It's a turn toward the middle class. The Republican Party's biggest political problem is that voters don't think it represents the interests of most people -- that it does not, as the exit-poll question puts it, "care about people like me." People think that the party instead serves the interests of the rich and big business, an impression that a lot of Republican tax proposals reinforce. This one undermines that impression.

The idea also repudiates 47-percent-ism. In his speech on the plan, Lee did not take on Mitt Romney by name, but he explicitly rejected the idea that people who don't pay income taxes are freeloaders. Expanding the child credit takes people off the tax rolls temporarily, and he doesn't see that as something to worry about.

And it's a communitarian turn. Republican economic rhetoric has tended to overemphasize commercial individualism. But that's not the whole of a conservative philosophy, or of a good life or society. By talking about family economics, Lee starts to correct this imbalance.

Especially since the last election, various conservatives and libertarians have argued that Republicans need to be more responsive to middle-class concerns. Liberals have generally looked on these pleas with amusement, saying that Republican politicians would never embrace their ideas. The party, they claim, is obsessed with furthering the interests of the rich, and its rising politicians are uninterested in innovations that have any appeal beyond its existing base.

That critique has some force. But it has less force now that Lee, who is clearly a conservative, is shifting his party's priorities on taxes toward the middle class.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review.)