During his speech today in Detroit, which many are interpreting as an effort to road test a “positive” and “optimistic” conservative economic vision, Jeb Bush said:

“Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin. And many more feel like they’re stuck in place: Working longer, and harder, even as they’re losing ground. Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges.
“Something is holding them back. Not a lack of ambition. Not a lack of hope. Not because they’re lazy, or see themselves as victims. Something else. Something is an artificial weight on their shoulders.
“Today, and in the coming weeks, I will address this critical issue. I will offer a new vision, a plan of action that is different than what we’ve been hearing from Washington, D.C. It’s a vision rooted in conservative principles, and tethered to our shared belief in opportunity and the unknown possibilities of a nation given the freedom to act, to create, to dream, and to rise.”

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but “see themselves as victims” is almost exactly the phrase Mitt Romney used in his infamous remarks about the “47 percent.”

Message: Jeb Bush will not be 47-percent-ed. He will not be Mitt-ed. He will present a conservative pro-economic-freedom case without committing the fatal political misstep of showing contempt for those who currently depend on government in any form.

To be sure, after distancing himself from Romney’s formulation, Bush launched into a speech that was loaded up with the usual anti-government boilerplate. Bush did say that “only a small portion” of Americans are “riding the economy’s up escalator,” in keeping with his apparent goal — which is shared by other GOP presidential candidates — to focus his candidacy on inequality, stalled mobility, wage stagnation, and the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve widespread distribution. But he then went on and on about the folly of expecting “government to deliver prosperity,” trafficked in the usual rhetoric about government picking winners and losers and impeding the magic of competition and economic freedom, and tossed off a few cracks about Washington being a “company town” that “recklessly degrades the value of work.”

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Still, it does look as if Bush is going to attempt — rhetorically, at least — to compete for GOP primary voters while steering clear of the usual “makers and takers” rhetoric that tripped up Romney and Paul Ryan last time around. You’d think that would be a no-brainer. But as I noted yesterday, Scott Walker is already honing a much sharper ideological edge. He’s claiming that under Obama, “dependence on government” has soared and the safety net has become a “hammock,” even as he touts his success in crushing the liberal and labor opposition in Wisconsin as his rationale for running for president.

We already have a rough sense of what the Democratic agenda for tackling inequality and wage stagnation will look like in 2016. It was laid out in Obama’s State of the Union speech: Investments in infrastructure to create jobs; taxing capital gains and inherited wealth to pay for tax relief for working and middle class Americans; more subsidies for community college, as befits a 21st Century economy in which success and higher living standards are ever more dependent on knowledge; a minimum wage hike; and clearing away barriers to work with policies like paid sick leave. As Jonathan Chait reports, the Dem agenda is also increasingly focused on subsidizing child care and early childhood education as a long term economic solution.

Republicans are clearly convinced inequality and wage stagnation will be central to the 2016 contest. But they appear as adamantly opposed to any new spending programs, and as adamantly convinced of the miraculous curative powers of across-the-board tax cuts, as ever. Indeed, the latter is a source of frustration for conservative reformers who are trying to nudge the GOP towards accepting a more interventionist government role in addressing people’s economic problems. Some GOP presidential hopefuls, such as Marco Rubio, are tentatively experimenting with middle class tax relief proposals (which Republicans like Paul Ryan support), though he won’t say how they would be paid for. Reform conservatives are also urging Republicans to develop alternative plans that would expand health coverage to the poor and sick, to replace the ultimate Free Stuff government program, i.e., Obamacare, though current replacement plans being developed by the likes of Rubio would likely be less ambitious and in any case remain vague.

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And so, one of the big stories of the 2016 GOP presidential primaries will be how the candidates differentiate themselves from one another as they edge into a real debate — presuming that happens — over what sort of affirmative interventionist economic policies they can support. A key part of this will undoubtedly be rhetorical: What is the best way to talk about beneficiaries of that “hammock” Scott Walker referenced? Jeb Bush put down an early rhetorical marker today.

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