Will Income Inequality Become a Major GOP Theme?

Marco Rubio

Will Income Inequality Be a Major GOP Theme?
| published January 26, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Unlike the Democratic Party’s 2016 roadmap to the White House—a playbook which at the moment contains the name of only one presumed candidate: former U.S. Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a de facto front-runner with a clear path unlike any in recent history—the Republican Party is awash with potential heavyweight contenders.

Though for almost all of last year the list was swirling with at least a dozen possible candidates, none of whom made any specific commitments (yes or no), the chatter about Republican potential candidates has reached a fever pitch of discussion over the last four weeks. Between New Year’s Eve and late January, at least four major GOP contenders have taken steps closer toward what will surely be active bids to seek the Presidency. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (twice a presidential candidate himself), and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio have all made public statements or taken the prescribed legal and regulatory steps to become active candidates.

What was once a clouded, uncertain future for the GOP now seems like a wide, albeit busy, multi-lane highway. For one, the GOP senses a shift in the prevailing electoral winds. The nasty recriminations of 2012’s heavy losses have been replaced with the euphoria still resonating after the 2014 midterm elections months ago handed the Republicans their biggest majority in Congress in more than 50 years. It was an unpleasant thrashing for Democratic candidates who sought to shield themselves from an unpopular President by shunning him at every opportunity, and by linking themselves—wherever possible—to the presumably rising fortunes of Hillary Clinton, widely seen as the next standard bearer for Democrats.

But that was then, and this is now. Even Hillary Clinton’s presumably endless chest of political capital was depleted when so many of the candidates she backed went down to defeat. The Clinton franchise was damaged, but surely not broken. She remains the de facto candidate-to-beat—for both parties—but the November debacle for Democrats has sparked a resurgence of energy in the GOP, the same political party widely presumed to be in its early death throes only two years ago when President Barack Obama beat back a well-funded, high-stakes challenge by Romney.

For many Republicans the path to the White House seems wide and free of obstacles. On New Year’s Eve, Jeb Bush stepped down from his directorships of several companies and non-profit groups, severed his business ties to other business ventures, and days later formed a political action committee (PAC) called Right to Rise. The PAC’s new website outlines his major themes of economic advancement, and contains language and bullet points which are surely the talking points of his presumed-candidacy. A week later, Romney himself weighed-in with several high-profile remarks in which he indicated—in the strongest language yet—that he is considering another run for the presidency, seemingly reversing his previous position that he would not consider another candidacy. Chris Christie, who has made no secret that he is considering a run for the White House, also began to escalate the tone of his remarks to include hints that he may make an official decision very soon as he reaches the conclusion of his term as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, a job which placed him in numerous high-profile events across the country. Christie has also stepped up appearances at events in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And this week, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has opted to skip a week’s worth of early Senate business in Washington to participate in a variety of fundraising events and activities in California, Texas and Illinois. Also on Rubio’s schedule: a meeting with about 450 major donors and comrades of the brothers Charles and David Koch, deep-pocket billionaires who make large contributions to the Republican war chest. Just days ago, Rubio held a gathering in Miami of some of his most reliable backers and fundraisers. And according to the Associated Press, he is gearing up for even more important visits to New Hampshire and Iowa.

Also meeting with the Koch brothers and their fundraising allies are Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, all widely discussed at possible GOP candidates in 2016.

Though Bush appeared to be quietly but visibly sideling up toward the starting gate first, others have clearly taken the cue that the horse race may be starting any moment. Bush’s not-so-secret goal was to begin locking-in supporters and donors as early as possible. The son of George Herbert Walker Bush, and the younger brother of George W. Bush, has often been at the center of GOP conversations about a presidential run, and his initial moves on New Year’s Eve and in early January immediately spawned the specter of a great dynastic rematch between a Clinton and a Bush. While some strategists on both sides of the aisle celebrated that distinct possibility, others cringed at the thought history repeating itself on such a grand scale.

It was just such a retro match-up which may have prompted more forceful activity by both Christie and Rubio, and may have been the catalyst which pushed Romney’s name back into the mainstream conversation.

Still, the Bush name carries clout and respectability—and tends to cut neatly across the sometimes nasty divide separating the mainstream GOP from its Tea Party insurgents. And though there is a solid cadre of conservatives who are distrustful of Jeb Bush, there are plenty of others who would love to see him face off against that inevitable Hillary Clinton candidacy. Bush was a popular governor who knew how to forge consensus even in the often challenging cauldron of Florida politics. While presiding in Tallahassee, he also knew how to avoid legislative gridlock and diffuse petty bickering, and left office with lots of positive baggage and political good will—a better fate than that of his two Republican successors, Charlie Crist (now a Democrat) and current chief executive Rick Scott.

And when it comes to fundraising, the Bush family has clout that reaches across the generations. Just this week Rubio conceded that Bush is already a formidable contender even before the race has begun in earnest.

“Jeb Bush is going to be a very credible candidate,” Rubio said, “I think he’s going to raise a lot of money. He’s got an extraordinary network of donors around the country and I know he’ll be a strong candidate if he runs.”

But for Republicans, the Koch Brothers are the 500 pound gorilla in the room. Bush and Romney may have the fundraising leverage and the political juice to avoid any early dance rounds with the Koch Brothers and their generous funding of Republican and conservative causes, but many other potential candidates may still feel the need to tap into the goodwill of the billionaires and their various political action groups and organizational entities. According to the Associated Press and other media outlets, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are all seeking the blessing of the Koch organization.

Meanwhile, for the first time ever, Florida may produce two leading candidates for president. Though historically rare, it is not unlikely that two major presidential candidates could emerge from the same state at the same time—Bush and Rubio would each make popular candidates, and for some of the same reasons. But there would of course be problems, not the least of which would be sharply divided home-state support in the crucial Florida primary. Both too may be seeking political and fundraising support from South Florida donors, and both will likely pull support from GOP-leaning Latinos in several states.

But don’t expect either Bush or Rubio to fire upon one another with heavy ordnance just yet. The most likely tone will be one of friendship and conciliation between the friends; Rubio has been a protégé of Bush since Rubio’s arrival on the Florida scene years ago.

In the meantime, the Sunday gathering of potential candidates at a wingding hosted and sponsored by the Kochs in California may have been the first time several presumed candidates were in the same room for what amounted to a pre-debate. The event—which was moderated by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, was not televised, but instead was streamed live for reporters and news organizations to watch.

Cruz, Paul and Rubio shared the stage for about 80 minutes—trading ideas on foreign policy, education, economics and infrastructure. One dominant theme was income-inequality, a problem seized upon by a wide-tract of Republicans as the key American challenge of the immediate future. President Obama’s State of the Union speech—widely criticized by Republicans for its combative style and aggressive credit-taking for everything from lower gas prices to space exploration—was picked apart even by some progressives and liberals who questioned Obama’s broad statements regarding economic recovery, income and jobs. GOP strategists see the growing income divide as a potential weakness for Democrats in 2016. Cruz, for examples, chided the President for taking so much credit for the economic gains for the last two or three years.

“I chuckle every time I hear Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton talk about income inequality,” Cruz said, “because it has increased dramatically under their policies.”

Rubio stressed that the United States is losing its battle to compete in the global economy.

“The best cure for poverty is a job—a good-paying job—and our economy isn’t producing enough of them,” Rubio said.

It’s a theme likely to be at the forefront of the GOP debates later this year, and it’s a message the Republican Party surely sees as central to its goal of continuing to bring voters back to the party of Ronald Reagan. Jeb Bush’s PAC, Right to Rise, is constructed around the core principle of income inequality. Its “what we believe” manifesto on the PAC’s website sums up the challenge.

“We believe passionately that the right to rise—to move up the income ladder based on merit, hard work and earned success—is the central moral promise of American economic life.” Such a view may be antithetical to some among the GOP purists (and even among the billionaires like the Koch’s), but for many Republican strategists, the approach makes sense politically. And those who support that tack insist that it will be a reliable way to reach out to what was once the party’s most pivotal demographic and electoral asset—the so-called Reagan Democrats.

Still, the early jostling between potential GOP candidates shows that Republicans sense a significant opportunity emerging in 2016. But even where they agree generally on the broad strokes of economics and income-inequality, there are sure to be sharp differences between the candidates on dozens of other issues. When those first televised debates start next summer and fall, expect fireworks, followed by heavier rounds of punching than what was seen at last weekend’s gathering in California.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Romney Considering 2016 Bid?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 11, 2015.

Jeb Bush’s New PAC: Another Sign of Candidacy; R Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 6, 2015.