Bush, Perry Learning from Mitt Romney’s Mistakes

Two former governors are eager to take on income inequality and the erosion of America’s middle class.

President Barack Obama speaks with Texas governor Rick Perry aboard a helicopter traveling to Dallas, July 9, 2014
President Barack Obama speaks with Texas governor Rick Perry aboard a helicopter traveling to Dallas, July 9, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

Jeb Bush and Rick Perry, two former Republican governors who are considering presidential runs in 2016, presented themselves this week as eager to tackle issues such as stagnant middle-class wages and income inequality that have been mostly dominated by the left.

Drawing a clear contrast between himself and former Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who infamously dismissed the “47 percent” of Americans who get government handouts in 2012, Bush lamented on Wednesday, “Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges. Something is holding them back,” he told an audience in Detroit. “Not a lack of ambition, not a lack of hope, not because they are lazy and see themselves as victims. Something else, something is an artificial weight on their shoulders.”

Bush, a former Florida governor and the son of former president George H.W. Bush and brother of George W. Bush, sounded more reliably Republican when he attributed America’s “opportunity gap” to a welfare system that “traps people in perpetual dependence.”

“The progressive and liberal mindset believes that for every problem there is a Washington DC solution,” he said.

But it was the result Bush said he was more concerned about. “It’s very hard for people to go from the bottom rungs of the economy to the top or even the middle. This should alarm you. It has alarmed me.”

Other conservatives dismiss concerns over declining social mobility as a smokescreen for “big government” liberalism.

Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, similarly urged policies that attack “stagnant wages” and the erosion of the middle class in an appearance before the conservative group American Principles Project in Washington DC.

“Let’s be clear about something,” Perry said. “The American voters’ rejection of the Democrat policies does not mean they embraced Republicans.” He added, “It is not good enough to state what we are just against.”

Republicans won majorities in both chambers of Congress last year but lost the presidency to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

In a preview of campaign themes for a possible presidential candidacy, Perry pointed to job growth in his home state of Texas and attributed it to lower taxes and less regulation.

“I know we can unleash growth and opportunity and restore the American Dream for the middle class,” he said. “And I know it because it happened in the thirteenth-largest economy in the world. It happened in Texas.”

The two Republicans’ prescriptions for arresting the middle class’ decline differ from President Obama’s who called for $320 billion in higher taxes on banks and the wealthy in his annual State of the Union address last month in order to finance tax credits for low-income families and higher-education tax benefits that are due to expire at the end of 2017.

The weakening of the middle class and concerns about social mobility are expected to be major themes in the 2016 election when Americans simultaneously elect a new president and a new Congress.

Although the American economy has recovered from the financial crisis and is adding jobs at the fastest rate since 1999, Federal Reserve survey data show that families in the middle fifth of the income scale earn less and their net worth is lower than at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Middle incomes’ predicament is particularly stark when compared to the fortune of those at the top.

Between 2010 and 2013, the average net worth of families in the top 40 percent of incomes grew. For those in the middle fifth, it shrank 19 percent.

Similarly, the average earnings for families in the top 10 percent grew more than 9 percent from 2010 through 2013 while those at other levels stagnated or declined. For the middle fifth, earnings fell 4.6 percent on average.

The decline in middle incomes can be attributed to a steep decline in the values of homes between 2007 and 2010. The housing crisis, that led to a broader financial crisis, wiped out nearly half of the median family’s wealth in those years.

There has also been a decline in middle-class jobs. While the American economy has added jobs to the top and bottom of the wage scale since Obama took office, traditional middle-income positions have been outsourced or made redundant by mechanization.

Labor force participation has declined dramatically as a result. While some ten million Americans are unemployed, a roughly equal number is believed to have given up looking for work altogether.

The perception that Mitt Romney, a millionaire venture capitalist, failed to empathize with those trapped in the middle arguably cost him the 2012 election. That perception was also eagerly exploited by Democrats who portrayed Romney as the candidate of the “1 percent.”

Bush and Perry will want to avoid being seen as candidates of the rich but that could mean challenging some of their party’s orthodoxies.

Bush in particular is mistrusted by rightwingers for his support for immigration reform.

Not budging on the issue, he said in Detroit, “This should be the lowest hanging fruit because this is a huge opportunity.”

Immigration is not a problem. The immigrant experience in our country makes us unique and special and different and it is part of our extraordinary success over time. So while the political fights go on, we’re missing this opportunity.

Bush earlier criticized conservatives who called for ideological purity in the wake of two presidential election defeats, saying, “We need to be the governing party. The whole point of this is to take conservative principles and apply them. And the only way you can do that is get fifty plus one.”

Perry’s staunch social conservatism could make him more popular with Republican primary voters but his record on immigration is less reactionary than his tough rhetoric on border security might suggest. He backed state-financed tuition for the children of illegal aliens in Texas and defended the policy in 2011, saying, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”

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