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Jeb Bush’s middle class speech was a historic shift — and more of the same

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush addresses the Detroit Economic Club. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush's speech on Wednesday before the Detroit Economic Club was something larger than a test-drive of a presidential campaign message. It was the highest-profile example to date of a Republican presidential hopeful embracing economic inequality and middle-class stagnation as problems that define America.

What it was not -- at least on its face -- was a break with orthodox conservative thinking about the economy.

From the start, Bush spoke directly to the struggles of a broad swath of American workers in a way that few previous GOP front-runners likely would have been comfortable with.

"Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin," he said. "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," he continued. "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, Americans across the country are frustrated. They see only a small portion of the population riding the economy’s 'up' escalator."

Many Republicans have long called that type of language class warfare. But, more recently, leading Republicans have tried to make it their own. The strategy might make sense given that the improving economy and declining unemployment have made it more difficult for the GOP to argue that the economy is stalled.

Rather, Republicans can now argue that the economy still isn't working for most people. Indeed, median incomes are the same today as they were in 1989.

Bush is the likely front-runner in a crowded field of Republican presidential aspirants, several of whom are trying to carve out a more popular economic vision after Democrats successfully portrayed 2012 candidate Mitt Romney's campaign as out-of-touch with economic anxieties.

For Republicans, however, acknowledging middle class woes is the easy part. The harder part is convincing voters not only that they know what went wrong, but also that they have a plan to set things right.

In his remarks Wednesday, Bush did not offer a complete theory for why the middle class has struggled and did not propose new ideas to change the trend -- saying they'll come later.  Rather, he offered a few guiding principles for the policy solutions he promised to offer in the weeks to come. And those principles veered into familiar GOP ground.

In saying that "something" is holding back frustrated workers, he fingered exactly one possible culprit: government. He gave examples: Government that shuts down small business owners for not paying licensing fees. Government that loses money collecting parking fines and selling snacks on Amtrak trains. Government that protects taxi cabs, restaurants and brick-and-mortar retailers from competition.

Bush's described a "right to rise" society, sounding similar to Romney in a speech he gave in Detroit three years earlier: stronger families to give children a better chance of economic success; school reforms heavy on teacher accountability and school choice; and changes to government policy to enable the economy to grow at 4 percent a year, a rate it never achieved once during the three combined terms his father and brother served as president.

(Bush invoked former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush in the speech. "I love them very much," he said. "I know that's hard for the political world to accept but it's pretty easy for me to love them. I love them unconditionally.")

Limiting government, reforming education and unleashing faster economic growth constitute the  economic platform of every Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan. Bush's comments drew praise from Republicans who see a need to reach out to struggling middle- and lower-income voters, but worry that the party could go too far and engage in a policy arms race with Democrats that relies too heavily on government solutions.

Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who was one of Romney's top advisers in 2012, said Bush laid out an "attractive vision" in Detroit.

"His speech left little doubt that he understands some of the challenges that face our economy today -- income stagnation, an out-of-date regulatory system that inhibits growth and an education system that's ill-equipped to prepare students for the jobs of the new economy," Chen said. "He's got a great opportunity now to present specific, forward-looking ideas that will be a welcome contrast with those we're likely to hear from Hillary Clinton and her Democratic allies in the coming election."

Democrats have criticized the recent Republican shift toward middle-class rhetoric as an attempt to paper over old policies.

On Wednesday, Ben Labolt, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for President Obama, said Bush's speech showed the governor "clearly has access to polls on what's at the top of voters' minds, but he better hope they don't have access to his record — hiking college tuition while cutting funding, eliminating health care coverage for thousands of kids and making affordable housing more difficult to find."

Bush has time to flesh out a detailed agenda, and  room to innovate from candidates past, Republican or Democratic. His first challenge will be living up to his own words.

“The opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time,” he said. His candidacy may be defined by his solutions for it.