Last week, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced the launch of Right to Rise, a political action committee intended to help organize and fund his potential Republican bid for presidency in 2016. Within hours of going online, the PAC began to rake in cash and generated buzz about one of the GOP establishment's favored prospects for the White House in the next election.
The PAC's website makes it clear that Bush means business — and that progressives are already winning the battle for 2016.
Ceding the grounds of the debate: Bush's manifesto has its fair share of standard conservative talking points, but it contains a set of clues that suggests something remarkable: In the run-up to the elections, conservatives feel that it's in their interest to adopt liberal framing on a number of key issues.
Right to Rise features a discussion of class issues that almost sounds as if it could have been written by Occupy Wall Street. While both Democrats and Republicans usually act as if the U.S. is composed of one socioeconomic stratum called the "middle class" and forever pledge to better its lot, Right to Rise calls attention to poverty — "too many of the poor have lost hope that a path to a better life is within their grasp" — and contends that "the playing field is no longer fair or level." The problem here isn't that poor are slothful, but that the economy doesn't serve everyone: "While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they've been a lost decade for the rest of America." The text emphasizes that the "income gap is real" and recognizes the problem of "onerous federal debt" for those trying to surmount it.
None of this means Bush is a serious critic of capitalism — the website attempts to pin inequality on Obama and goes on to prescribe "conservative principles" to resolve it — but it does suggest that progressives have wrested control of some major political narratives.
The key issues: Two of the seven principles highlighted on the Right to Rise homepage are redolent of a leftist worldview — "growth for everyone" and "rising wages."
"Growth for everyone" is a particularly interesting piece of rhetoric. Standing for economic growth is a sacred conservative commitment, but the idea that growth belongs to all imposes a progressive condition upon that commitment. While trumpeting growth is typically meant to signal that banks and big business will be awarded comfortable tax and regulatory arrangements, the injection of "everyone" complicates this promise — and raises real questions about how conservatives intend to put their money where their populist mouth is.
The mention of wages represents a quiet victory for low-wage movements across the country. The fight for fair wages has experienced rising salience in the past year, between nationwide strikes for a $15 minimum wage, the White House's advocacy for a federal increase and the embrace of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and San Francisco. During the 2014 midterm elections, the passage of ballot measures increasing the minimum wage in four red states gave the issue a more bipartisan cast. Bush's calculation is that higher wages — or at least some kind of lip service to the idea — is a relatively low-risk play at populist politics.
Right to Rise hints at a progressive approach toward immigration, too. There are English and Spanish versions of both his announcement of Right to Rise and the website itself. The website discusses how the current immigration system is "obsolete" and makes no mention of secure borders. It discusses the value of having a "welcoming society."
Words matter: Finally, the very name Right to Rise is itself unorthodox branding for a conservative enterprise. The phrase (used a number of times by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012) implies freedom in a positive sense, while conservatives tend to coalesce around negative freedom.
Conservatives usually conceptualize rights as guaranteed liberty from things — government infringement on guns or business — rather than to them. As Peter Beinart notes at the Atlantic, refuting rights to things in economic life has been a modern Republican imperative since Franklin Roosevelt's agenda to promote a "second Bill of Rights" including rights to things such as good health care or a well-paying job. Bush's Right to Rise of course makes no such promises in substance, but in pitch and subtext the website suggests that citizens are right to expect more from the economy and the government.
The populist and left-leaning undertones of Right to Rise are part of a broader acknowledgment within the Republican Party that inequality can no longer be swept under the rug. It also acknowledges that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 partly because he thought the national conversation on inequality was "all about envy," and that 47% of society is composed of government parasites. This time around, presidential hopefuls from both parties are inclined to agree that they must address "the feeling of many Americans that they are being shut out from the nation's prosperity," as Philip Rucker and Dan Balz reported in the Washington Post.
Progressives have generally been disappointed by the Democratic Party's failure to take bold steps on the economy. Several years after the economic crisis, the feeling that the economy is fundamentally unfair persists. That conservative politicians feel obligated to reckon with this grievance does not mean it will be resolved, but it does suggest there is some opportunity here for progressives hoping for a more ambitious Democratic Party.