The Des Moines Register reports on a conference call that Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who is all but certain to run for president, held with Republican activists in Iowa. The call contains some preliminary hints as to how the debate over what the GOP economic agenda should look like might unfold during the GOP primaries — which, in turn, could have ramifications for the 2016 general elections.

First, notably, Walker reprises one of Paul Ryan’s old favorites — the comparison of the safety net with a “hammock”:

“I see a president who seems to feels success should be measured by how many people are dependent on the government,” Walker said. Under Obama, government assistance has become less of a safety net and more of “a hammock,” he said.

I can’t find any audio of this, so it’s hard to judge the full thrust of what he meant, but this carries echoes of Ryan’s infamous suggestion that the safety net is at risk of becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

Ryan himself subsequently backed off of this suggestion, acknowledging it was the “wrong analogy,” though he did reiterate his belief that a core problem we face in fighting poverty is the risk that “government programs” do too much to “disincentivize work.” But as Paul Krugman has documented, the research shows that any such impact from anti-poverty programs is minimal at best.

If Walker agrees with the harsher Ryan formulation — one that holds overtones of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” sneer — it suggests a direction that the arguments in the GOP primary might end up taking.

Right now, the Republican presidential candidates are all signaling that they will place the need to address inequality and poverty at the center of their campaigns. Marco Rubio’s new book attempts to speak directly to people’s economic struggles, and Jeb Bush has been making nice noises about how the economy has been disproportionately good to those at the top.

Bush, however, is looking to differentiate himself with a message that puts a more positive cast on conservative free-market rhetoric and focuses more on the poor and minority outreach, in hopes of developing national appeal, his advisers say. I don’t have any idea what that would look like in policy terms — one imagines we’ll see more of the same old stuff about getting government out of the way to stop impeding people’s economic mobility. But the point is, you can see Bush seizing on harsh rhetoric like this from Walker to make the case for a Republican approach to talking about inequality that avoids sliding into self-destructive and divisive 47 percenter-ism.

As it happens, GOP base voters like all this hammock talk — what you might call the “Hammock Theory of Poverty.” Polls have shown that Tea Party Republicans are far more likely than non-Tea Party-Republicans to believe that unemployment benefits make people less motivated to look for work and that government aid to the poor does more harm than good.

Meanwhile, Walker is looking to appeal to GOP primary voters by displaying a much harder ideological edge than Bush. He is explicitly citing his success in crushing the opposition in Wisconsin, amid years of brutal battles with labor, as a rationale for his presidential run (though he’s putting a religious gloss on it by arguing that perhaps God put him through those travails to prepare him for the presidency). Note what else he said on the conference call:

Walker talked about some of the death threats made against him by those who opposed his conservative reforms. One threatened to “gut my wife like a deer,” and another note said that if his wife didn’t stop him, he’d be “the first Wisconsin governor ever assassinated,” he said. The threats are part of the reason he’s “exploring that very real possibility of stepping up and providing a new level of leadership,” he said during the 30-minute call.
“Part of me looks back and thinks that maybe God put me and my family through all this for a purpose – and it wasn’t just to get things done in Wisconsin, and it wasn’t just to win all those elections in a state that normally doesn’t go Republican. Maybe it was to set us to … help get our country on the right track.”…
A Fort Dodge man asked Walker if he could use the same approach he used in “defeating unions” to take on liberals in Washington “and get some spending control bills and repeal Obamacare.”
“Absolutely,” Walker answered.

Whatever God has in store for Walker, I wouldn’t be surprised if Team Bush starts to insinuate that Walker is a divisive, polarizing and even nasty figure who would alienate swing voters, particularly women, in the battle with Hillary Clinton to come. Key to the debate over which Republican candidate has broader economic appeal in a general election will be the rhetoric the GOP candidates use to talk about those enjoying life in that “hammock.”