CORONADO, Calif. — Not yet in the presidential race, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitt Romney already are previewing the likely focus of the 2016 campaign, a competition over who’s better able to boost paychecks for working Americans.
And that ostensibly populist message about wages and jobs for the middle-class? It’s what their potential rivals for the Democratic and Republican nominations — Jeb Bush and Elizabeth Warren, among them — are talking about, too.
It started Friday afternoon, when Clinton, who has been mostly quiet over the past few weeks as a GOP field of more than two dozen potential candidates jockeyed for attention, sent her first tweet in more than a month: “Attacking financial reform is risky and wrong. Better for Congress to focus on jobs and wages for middle-class families.”
Late Friday night, it was Romney’s turn. The wealthy former private equity chief sounded almost nothing like the Romney of 2012, when he told voters “corporations are people, my friend,” and said to a group of rich donors that when it comes to the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, “my job is not to worry about those people.”
Said Romney on Friday, “Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before.”
While it’s a clear shift for Romney to offer such a message, which sounds like something a Democrat like Clinton might levy as an attack against a Republican nominee, Bush is kicking off his prospective bid with a similar approach. The former Florida governor puts “rising wages” front and center on the website of the political committee that’s essentially his campaign-in-waiting.
“Too many of the poor have lost hope that a path to a better life is within their grasp,” Bush’s site says. “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest owf America.”
As for Warren, who continues to the dismay of some liberals to insist she will not enter the 2016 race, her populist message about wages and income inequality may be pushing Clinton from afar. See Clinton’s tweet, which opened with a defense of Warren’s assault on Wall Street’s large investment banks, which has been at the core of her work in the Senate.
To be sure, presidential campaigns often become a proxy fight over the health of the nation’s economy. It was the staff of Clinton’s husband who, during his first campaign for president against Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, summed up their strategy in three words: “The economy, stupid.”
That’s why others who are talking about running for president are not straying far from an economic message at this stage of the campaign. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s speech Friday to the Republican National Committee was all about his state’s record of job creation during his time in office. If you’ve heard Perry talking about the “Texas Miracle” before, it’s because he rarely misses an opportunity to do so.
“I got 14 years of preparation as governor running the most successful state in the nation,” Perry said.
In their state of the state speeches this week, both Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie touted drops in their state’s unemployment rate under their watch.
“ Voters, particularly in presidential contests, want their candidates to be able to answer in the affirmative the question, ‘Does this person understand the problems of people like me?”” said former Romney adviser Kevin Madden. “This is a departure from the last campaign, where the focus was on drawing contrasts with the president and reminding voters what they didn’t like or shouldn’t like about Obama’s economic record.”
But it’s the populist message on wages that appear especially ripe for this moment. American’s rate their own finances a bit worse than they did at the start of Obama’s time in office, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll taken at the end of last year, with half of those under 30 describing themselves as poor. While a majority feels the stock market and big businesses have mostly recovered from the Great Recession, only 34 percent say their family is largely back to normal.
“There’s an opening for Republicans,” said Republican strategist and former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, who like Romney said Obama hadn’t reduced poverty in America during his first six years in office.
“There’s got to be a difference between the Democratic message and Republican message on this issue,” he added. “Republicans need to focus on restoring social mobility — the notion that everybody in this country could rise.”
What comes next, of course, is the policy prescriptions of the candidates. Romney didn’t offer any specific ideas during his speech on Friday, but still used the opportunity to take a shot at the ideas of Democrats. “Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don’t get the job done,” Romney said.
During the recent midterm election campaign, Clinton often spoke of the need to return to an economic system of broadly shared prosperity. But she’s yet to say much about what precisely she would do as president to address wage inequality and middle-class jobs.
Which, to be fair, isn’t unexpected. The Iowa Caucus is still more than a year away, and none of the people who are talking about running for president and acting like they’re running for president have actually launched a formal campaign. The details will come later.