The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the conventional wisdom about Jeb Bush’s electability is wrong and how the D’s may have the same problem.

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The conventional wisdom (CW) is that the path to the White House is blocked for Republicans by the belief that any candidate conservative enough to gain the support of their base would be too far right to win the general election, and vice versa.

Jeb Bush, who recently announced that he’s thinking seriously about getting into the race, is thus seen by his fellow partisans as a great challenger for the general but a heavier lift for the primaries, with the latter especially problematic given his strong (and, in my view, admirable) views in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

But at least from the perspective of economic policy, I’m not sure that analysis is correct. A moderate, business-oriented Republican such as Bush might well have trouble in the primaries, but he might also have an awfully tough time in the general. The reason is that on economic policy, he’s Romney redux, a Chamber-of-Commerce establishment Republican with a trickle-down agenda who will get lots of love from a business community that demonstrably doesn’t determine national election outcomes.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Republican problem. The CW is that the winning candidate for either side must be populist enough to get by the base but then moderate enough to both appease the corporate powers and reach the precious swing voters who decide narrow races. Note the assumption that when said candidate pivots to the middle, they’ll do so while holding on to their base.

I suspect this won’t work. Let me explain why by starting with a 2011 op-ed co-authored by Bush wherein he (along with Kevin Marsh) articulates his “grand economic strategy…in a word: growth.”

I’ll get into some of the details as to what he thinks will drive economic growth, but let’s think about this for a moment. If there’s one thing anyone with even a passing interest in running for high office ought to know by now, it is that from the perspective of middle-class prosperity, growth is necessary but not sufficient.

What Bush is really touting here is precisely the same tickle-down economics that conservatives have promoted since Ronald Reagan started talking about it in the late 1970s. Since then, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent has doubled, from about 10 percent to 20 percent, while the middle class has often struggled to claim its fair share of the growth that’s occurred. This problem has been particularly pronounced in recent years, when the vast majority of the growth has eluded middle-class households.

The trickle-down platform failed for Romney, and I can’t see why it won’t fail again. Regardless of their partisan stripes, voters don’t just want to hear your growth agenda. They want to hear what steps you’re going to take to reconnect their prosperity to the growth that’s occurred, or very possibly, is occurring (though, of course, their preferred solution sets will be very different).

This is another big problem for the trickle-downers, and it’s a good problem to have: We’ve actually got growth. Who knows what GDP will be around election time, but it may well be that a Republican like Bush arguing for growth as their “grand strategy” will be stuck with that facts that a) we’re already growing at a fair clip, and b) said growth got going with a Democrat at the helm.

As far as I can tell from his op-ed, Bush is for the same tax cuts that Romney ran on (“fundamental tax reform — dramatically lowering tax rates for individuals and companies while eliminating loopholes, deductions and credits — is critical to economic growth”), more free trade, “reforming Social Security,” and “enacting consumer-driven health-care policies,” the latter two of which are typically buzzwords for reducing social insurance, including Obamacare. These are precisely the opposite policy ideas warranted by the economy in which we actually exist, where both working and retired middle-class families need stronger, not weaker, insurance against the impact of the growth disconnect on their wages, their savings and their wealth. Macroeconomic growth alone won’t solve these challenges.

I’ll stop there on Bush because it’s not fair to go much further before he’s had a chance to have his say in the broader economic policy debate yet to come. But let turn briefly to the D’s.

How different are they — whoever “they” are — likely to be on this reconnection agenda? Surely they’ll differ from the R’s on minimum wages, but that’s a small part of the needed agenda. In fact, too often it seems as if Democrats believe that at the end of the day, they’ll survive a general based solely on the allegiance of the “rising American electorate:” unmarried women, minorities, millennials, immigrants — the largest and fastest-growing part of the electorate.

But as the recent midterms revealed, the RAE’s doesn’t always show up. Its turnout may well turn out to hinge on whether it believes a candidate will try to implement a set of policies more likely to steer growth its way. Simply touting growth, as Bush’s agenda clearly seems to do, is obviously inadequate. But not explaining the policies that would channel growth toward those for whom it has been a spectator sport for far too long won’t work either.

Those policies are not trickle-down, tax cuts for the wealthy, new trade deals or cuts to social insurance. They are instead ideas that will boost the quantity and quality of jobs; that will lower the trade deficit to promote manufacturing; that will strengthen the safety net and social insurance; that will make sure Obamacare keeps reaching the uninsured at affordable rates; that directly provide jobs for those disconnected from the job market, along with apprenticeships and other “earn-while-you-learn” opportunities; that will offer help to stressed households trying to balance work and family; that won’t repeal but will strengthen financial market oversight.

As usual, the generals are fighting old wars. The electoral strategies seem to assume that there’s some balancing act that goes left or right in the primaries and tacks to some mushy middle in the general. Perhaps I’m wrong and that will work. But my hunch is that unless you’ve got a strong reconnection agenda — I’ve ticked off one above, but there are surely others — people will ignore you, regardless of your last name, as well they should.