Jeb Bush used a speech in Detroit to sketch the broad contours of an economic platform on Wednesday, again emphasising that he would put inequality and social mobility at the heart of his policy agenda should he decide to run for president.
Mr Bush, the son of former president George HW Bush and the brother of George W Bush, has moved methodically in recent weeks to lay out a 2016 campaign message that is likely to set him apart from most of his rivals for the Republican party nomination, as well as the Democratic frontrunner, an as yet undeclared Hillary Clinton.
In what some commentators are branding “reform conservatism,” the former Florida governor called for pro-growth policies that would tackle stagnant wages and rising income inequality in America, while simultaneously attacking liberal policies for miring families in a cycle of poverty.
“Instead of a safety net to cushion our occasional falls, they have built a spider web that traps people in perpetual dependence. The progressive and liberal mindset believes that for every problem there is a Washington, DC, solution,” Mr Bush said.
Mr Bush’s choice of Detroit for his first campaign-style speech was no accident.
The city’s economy, once defined by the lustre of the American auto industry, is now best known for having been ravaged by entrenched racial segregation and decades of globalisation that saw its population plummet from a peak of 1.8m in 1950 to under 700,000 today.
While its 8-square-mile downtown has seen a resurgence in recent years, welcoming the likes of Whole Foods and Google, many locals fear that the 132-square-miles of blighted neighbourhoods that surround the glittering city centre — and their mostly black residents — will be left behind.
While billed as a major policy address, Mr Bush’s 25 minute speech at the Detroit Economic Club, was relatively sparse on detail, and he told the 600-strong audience that he would lay out his full economic plan in the coming weeks. But here is a rundown of some of the core themes he outlined:
1. Opportunity Gap
Similarly in fact to progressive Democrats like Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Mr Bush has singled out declining social mobility in America, or what he referred to on Wednesday as the “opportunity gap”, as a critical issue.
As the broader US recovery gathers pace, with unemployment down to 5.6 per cent and jobs growth accelerating, politicians in both parties are grappling with how to frame their message to middle class and low income voters who feel they have been left behind, as America’s most affluent continue to grab a larger slice of the economic pie.
“More Americans are stuck at their income levels than ever before,” said Mr Bush. “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.”
2. Poor people are not lazy
Mr Bush used his speech to separate himself from some of the rhetoric on poverty and entitlements that so badly damaged Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012.
Mr Romney, who pulled out of an already crowded 2016 field last week after reaching the conclusion that Mr Bush already had built a clear advantage operationally as well as with donors, never quite recovered after being caught on tape referring to the “47 per cent” of Americans who are dependent on government handouts as victims.
Mr Bush moved to draw a clear line from that kind of language:
“Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges. Something is holding them back — 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.”
3. Immigration as an economic driver
Mr Bush’s stance on immigration reform differs sharply from most Republicans, and is frequently cited as a potential weakness in what is expected to be a hard-fought primary against candidates more popular with the party’s grassroots.
He has repeatedly expressed support for giving immigrants who came to the US illegally a pathway to citizenship, a stance many conservatives equate with “amnesty” and which is at the heart of an ongoing fight between Congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama.
Mr Bush spoke at length about the role legal immigration can play in galvanising economic growth, in comments that are likely to be seized upon by those who claim he lacks strong conservative credentials:
“This should be the lowest hanging fruit, to be honest with you, because this is a huge opportunity,” Mr Bush said. “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.”
“You come, you work hard, you embrace these values, and you’re as American as anybody who came on the Mayflower. That’s the America that will yield great great results.”
4. Energy revival
Mr Bush touted the benefits of America’s booming energy industry, and how lower energy costs will help spur jobs growth while providing relief for cash-strapped families.
America’s scale and diminishing dependence on foreign economies gave it the chance to create “an energy policy based on American innovation and North American resources” that would “create the lowest cost energy source in the world over the longest period of time, to help consumers with their disposable income and to help reindustrialise the country,” he said: “We have a chance to lead the world.”
Additional reporting by Neil Munshi
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