Jeb Bush should probably thank Donald Trump for stealing the limelight last week.
On Wednesday, the former Florida governor made a comment that could be ranked up there with Mitt Romney’s cataclysmic “47 percent” speech in terms of voter alienation.
In an interview with the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, Bush told the paper’s editorial board that he thinks Americans “need to work longer hours.” While the 2016 hopeful tried to clarify he was referring to underemployed workers wanting more hours, the line was cemented as meaning all workers.
Fortunately for the Republican hopeful, the media was still fixated on Trump’s every move when the establishment favorite made his comment that is basically a stone’s throw from “work harder, peasants!”
But Bush still didn’t escape unscathed from the snafu as some figures, including Hillary Clinton, took a break from Trumpmania to criticize the ex-governor. This comment could very well bury Jeb’s White House dreams further down the road and it clearly indicates that he has a messaging problem.
However, the son of George isn’t the only Republican with a messaging problem. Many candidates — including Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal and even Rick Perry (yes, that Rick Perry) — have embraced wonkery in response to domestic woes.
The obvious problem with this strategy is that it is difficult to communicate these ideas in the age of the 30-second ad and even shorter political soundbite. In order to get your message across — regardless of how great it might be — you have to whittle it down to layman’s terms.
Jeb Bush’s economic platform is likely to be forever summarized as: “Americans need to work more hours to grow the economy.” Needless to say, that’s a terrible message to have for a country that already works the most hours of any industrialized nation in the world.
No matter how admirable Bush’s fiscal policies may be or how much work went into drawing them up, they’re now smeared by that one sentence.
Even if fiscal wonkery can be simplified into non-robber baron rhetoric, there’s the other, more significant problem with employing it: it’s boring. Or to, put in more generous terms, it’s not inspiring.
For an example of effectively-communicated, yet definitely unsexy policy-proposing, look no further than Ari Fleischer’s op-ed purporting to offer the GOP a platform for winning the White House.
Published on the same day as Jeb’s fateful remarks, the former George W. Bush aide argued that there is one simple idea that will win at the ballot box and spur economic growth.
What is the great plan that Fleischer has in mind? A major overhaul of the tax code that includes abolishing the payroll tax, placing lower-income workers on the income tax and eliminating deductions to keep rates low.
While the ex-White House spokesman does present a well-argued case for this tax reform, it fails to note that Romney ran on a more moderate plan as his central selling point…and lost. Fleischer’s plan is more ambitious — and even more likely to alienate voters.
While the average worker may benefit from the payroll tax’s absence, putting everyone on the progressive income tax and erasing deductions is bound to sound bad when it comes time for the 30-second ads. Especially when those missing deductions will mean middle- and lower-income Americans will have to fork over more dollars to the government every April 15.
More importantly, this message will likely not provide the inspiration voters are seeming to crave this election cycle. Thousands aren’t flocking to hear Trump and Bernie Sanders promise to cut deductions for mortgages and student loans. They’re showing up because both men are tapping into the discontent millions of Americans are feeling at the moment.
The voters who lap up Trump like his tough-talking on how our country’s leaders seem to ignore the problem at the border and get raw deals for American workers. Sanders plays up anxieties that the rich are getting richer while the poor can’t find work.
You can bemoan this populism until the cows come home, but that isn’t going to stop angry voters from rallying to these respective candidates.
This should be of particular concern for the GOP. The reason why Trump has managed to rise in the polls is due not only to him championing overlooked issues, but to his superior grasp of messaging. Among a field of contenders trying to fight to be the dullest technocrat, Trump is a breath of fresh air.
If a Republican wants to defeat The Donald Menace and sit in the Oval Office, then that candidate needs to have a more appealing message for voters. Which means it shouldn’t translate to “work harder, peasants!” or dismiss the concerns of the base in order to shamelessly appeal to another demographic.
The Republican seeking a path of victory first must have a grand, yet easy-to-comprehend vision for America. The reason why the GOP lost the White House twice to Barack Obama is because the party preferred the boring money talk that Fleischer and others continue to expound. Obama, on the other hand, promised “hope and change” and offered the prospect of a post-racial America.
Of course, these powerful ideas failed to come to fruition — but Obama still won the presidency twice by decisive margins. That’s because he was able to boil down his policies and proposals to clear themes that won over the majority of voters.
Right now, Republicans seem unable to communicate anything more appealing than “we’re not Democrats.”
When Ronald Reagan won his first term in office, he didn’t earn it by rambling about complicated tax wonkery or haranguing the American people for not liking illegal immigration. Rather, Reagan won with a simple, effective message of restoring the country to its status as the “shining city upon a hill” after four disastrous years of Jimmy Carter.
After eight tumultuous years of Barack Obama, the space is wide open for Republicans to offer America a more promising vision than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.