Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have both kicked off their embryonic presidential campaigns by talking about income inequality.
From the "what we believe" section of Mr. Bush's "Right To Rise" Political Action Committee:
While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they've been a lost decade for the rest of America....We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility.
Note the reference to the "income gap," like candidate John Kennedy talking about the "missile gap" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (which turned out to be overstated if not imaginary).
From a New York Times report on Mr. Romney's remarks to the Republican National Committee:
"Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in American than ever before," Mr. Romney said.
This is an interesting choice for both candidates. Republicans have a variety of choices in how to approach the income inequality issue. Here are four options (there may be others, too):
A. They can ignore it, because polls show that few voters name it as a high priority.
B. They can talk about it by saying that that the problem is overstated by statistical measures that overlook taxes and transfers or that focus on income rather than consumption. An example of that approach is this article by Diana Furchtgott-Roth.
C. They can talk about it by explaining that income inequality is not worth obsessing over, because while God created all men equal in terms of God-given rights and in God's image, He distributed talents and dispositions less equally, and he also commanded us not to covet our neighbor's house or belongings (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Example: I'm never going to be as good a football player as Tom Brady. So I don't expect to make as much money as he does. And it doesn't bother me that he makes a lot of money.
D. They can talk about it by blaming President Obama for it, and by promising that Republicans will do a better job of countering it than Democrats will.
Messrs. Bush and Romney both seem to have chosen choice D, at least for now. I think that choice carries some risks, both because it's not clear to me that income inequality grew any more dramatically under Presidents Clinton and Obama than it did under Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush, and because it's not immediately clear to me that Republican policies will be any more successful than Democratic ones in eradicating income inequality. Maybe Messrs. Bush and Romney can make the case that their policies — education reform featuring school vouchers, welfare reform focused on faith-based programs — would do a better job fighting poverty and reducing inequality of opportunity than would growth-killing Democratic policies of redistributive taxing and spending. But if voters are really choosing based on who will do a better job reducing inequality of outcome by using tax and welfare policy to level out differences created by talents, choices, luck and hard work, it's hard to see how the Republicans can compete, or why they would want to. That's what I mean by "The Inequality Trap."
Not that choices A, B, and C above are without risk, either, most of all the risk of appearing callous and losing to the Democrats on the poll question about whether the candidate "cares about people like me."
Anyway, the presidential campaign is young. But if either Mr. Bush or Mr. Romney really wants to make inequality a theme without being crushed, they'll need to get into some real substantive detail on these matters, which should get interesting.