When presidential candidates confront complex policy challenges, they usually turn to their party’s wonks, who supply them with ideas that reflect their party’s consensus. There may be differences here and there depending on which wonks are supporting the candidate and the candidate’s own inclinations, but those differences will generally be small. For instance, in 2008, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all had health-care plans that were variations of the same basic plan (greater insurance regulation, subsidies for people to buy coverage, etc.), not because they all happened to have the same idea but because they were drawing on the same thinking among Democratic health wonks.
As we move into 2016, all the candidates are going to have to come up with economic plans, and one of the key questions is whether what they produce addresses the most pressing concerns voters have right now. The debate isn’t the same as it has been in most elections, when if we were in a downturn we’d ask, “How can we turn things around?” and if things were going well we’d ask, “How can we keep this going?” Instead, we’re in a period defined by strong job growth and reasonable economic growth yet persistent insecurity, fed by long-term wage stagnation.
Today, the Economic Policy Institute — a liberal think tank that gets support from labor unions — released an 11-point “Agenda to Raise America’s Pay,” and it’s worth paying attention to because something like it will probably become Hillary Clinton’s economic plan. Conservatives would probably look at it and say this is the same old thing: Increase the minimum wage, lower barriers to collective bargaining, invest in infrastructure, reform immigration, raise taxes on the wealthy and so on. (You can see a similar set of recommendations in this report from the Center for American Progress.) But the fact that many of these ideas are familiar doesn’t diminish the degree to which they’re both popular and aimed directly at income inequality. And some of the proposals, such as increasing the availability of overtime pay and sick leave, or encouraging the Fed to prioritize lowering unemployment over protecting against future inflation, haven’t been as commonly discussed among regular people sitting around kitchen tables.
So how will Republicans respond? It may depend on how much they think voters really care about inequality in particular, or if that’s just a way to talk about the economy in general, and as long as they sound as though they have ideas to make the economy better in some broad sense that will be enough. If that’s true, then Republicans will be on much safer ground, because their traditional slate of economic ideas is geared toward creating growth, not making prosperity more widely shared than it is now.
I’m willing to be proved wrong, but my guess is that the Republican presidential candidates’ strategy to address inequality and wage stagnation will go something like this:
- Say this is a problem you’re really concerned about.
- Propose the same economic policies you would have anyway, i.e. cuts to taxes and regulations.
Could that work? It could. There have certainly been cases in the past where candidates have told voters, “I care deeply about the thing you care deeply about” when it wasn’t really true, but enough people were convinced. One problem Republicans face is that because conservative economic wonks haven’t been concerned about inequality before, there isn’t a party consensus on questions such as how to address wage stagnation that candidates can just grab and drop into a position paper.
Democrats do have that policy consensus, and whatever you think of each of their ideas individually, there’s no doubt that they’re directly focused on what most people now think is the central economic challenge of our time. And they’re going to sound pretty good to voters. It will be one more problem Republican candidates will have to employ some creativity to solve.