Fresh off his promise to stop giving black voters “free stuff” in the form of government programs, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush accused Democrats of sabotaging the American economy for political gain in a Monday television interview.
“I think the left wants slow growth because that means people are more dependent upon government,” Bush told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo. “I reject that. I believe that people want to rise up, they want the tools to achieve earned success, and how we tax and regulate really matters.”
Bush’s allegation is the latest in a series of comments about public assistance programs that illustrate the candidate’s fealty to the economic ideas of men like former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck. In a February speech in Detroit, Bush said supporters of safety net programs have instead “built a spider web that traps people in perpetual dependence,” a twist on Ryan’s famous claim that the safety net had become a hammock. It’s not a new attitude. With federal debates over welfare reform heating up in 1994, Bush suggested that it was time for women on welfare to “find a husband” and stop relying on taxpayers to get by.
Monday’s accusation came after Bartiromo asked about Bush’s promise to usher in 4 percent annual economic growth if elected. Just four administrations have hit that mark in the modern era, and economists have derided Bush’s pledge as a sort of modern snake-oil promise, both too vague to be analyzed and too simplistic to deliver the sustained high growth Bush wants rather than one unstable burst followed by a return to historical averages.
Bush’s tax proposals are the centerpiece of his growth plan. But the historical record is similarly unkind to the tax ideas he’s pushing. Bush wants to eliminate or reduce a variety individual taxes in ways designed to primarily benefit the well-off. His proposals would shield both investment income and inheritances, which are two major drivers of the wealth inequality that’s behind the ongoing decline in economic security for working-class families.
But even setting aside the question of inequality, there’s little reason to think another round of trickle-down tax cuts from a President Bush would spark the kind of broader lift-off in growth the former Florida governor wants. Lower top marginal tax rates are historically correlated with weaker economic growth, not stronger. Indeed, one of the few periods in U.S. history when economic growth actually cleared his 4 percent mark came when the top income tax rate was 90 percent.
Bush’s policy ideas fit with the family lineage, but his recent campaign rhetoric is more reminiscent of Mitt Romney. Prior to Monday’s allegation that proponents of middle-out economics are out to undermine the country, Bush echoed Romney’s portrayal of safety net policies as political bribery. “Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” he said to a mostly-white crowd in South Carolina last week. “It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”
It’s hard to square Bush’s blinkered commitment to growth with his apparent disdain for programs for low-income families. Efforts to boost the purchasing power and household earnings of struggling low-income people should be an easy sell for those who believe that sufficiently strong economic growth will override the inequities of the U.S. economy. Those are the people whose consumption and spending power the broader economic engine — and the companies that depend on those shoppers to succeed are already warning that income inequality is sabotaging their performance.