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“Back To The Future In 2016”: Nothing Would Make Policy Debates More Obvious Than Bill Clinton’s Wife And George W. Bush’s Brother

It’s never long in a presidential race before one candidate or another says, “This election isn’t about the past—it’s about the future.” But the 2016 election is probably going to be even more about the past than most, particularly given that there will be no incumbent running.

I thought of that late last week when I heard that Rick Perry—who promises to once again provide more than his share of unintentional comic relief over the next year or so until he drops out—told attendees at an event in New Hampshire that Abraham Lincoln was a great advocate of states’ rights. “Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it,” Perry said. “That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy.”

That’s certainly a novel perspective, to characterize Lincoln as a Tenth-Amendment fetishist like today’s tea partiers. But I suppose one can forgive the impulse, given how far the GOP has traveled from what it was in the time of the first Republican president. Pop quiz: If they had been alive in the 1860s, how many of today’s Republicans would have been on the side of the North? Not too many. Rick Perry sure as hell wouldn’t have.

But the history we’re going to argue much more about in 2016 isn’t so distant, and its protagonists—and their family members—are still around. Last week, a prominent Republican economist came up with what may be the most biting message any Democrat could hope for:

“When Hillary Clinton runs, she’s going to say, ‘The Republicans gave us a crappy economy twice, and we fixed it twice. Why would you ever trust them again?’ ” said Kevin Hassett, a former economic adviser to GOP nominees Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. “The objective for the people in the Republican Party who want to defeat her is to come up with a story about what’s not great” in this recovery, especially wage growth, he said.

Now imagine that Jeb Bush is the Republican nominee, and replace “The Republicans gave us a crappy economy twice” with “The Bushes gave us a crappy economy twice.” It hits even harder.

Is that unfair? In the sense that Jeb Bush can’t be held directly responsible for what his father and brother did in office, sure. Or at least, he’s no more responsible for it than any other Republican. It isn’t as though there’s a distinct Bushian strand of economic policy within the GOP, one that differs in some meaningful way from what other Republicans advocate. Although nobody has released detailed campaign policy papers yet, it’s all but guaranteed that the things Jeb Bush would do as president don’t differ too much from what the other candidates would do. They’d all like to cut taxes, particularly on investments; they’d reduce regulations on corporations; and they’d do what they could to roll back the policies of the Obama years in areas like labor and environmental enforcement. It’s possible that one candidate or another has some spectacularly creative new idea that will completely transform the American economy in ways no one has imagined. But probably not.

If the debate around the economy truly has changed, from a focus on what will produce growth to a focus on how to make the economy’s fruits more widely and equitably distributed, then it’s even less clear what Republicans will have to offer. Hillary Clinton can say that the years of her husband’s administration were the only period in recent decades that saw real (if not overwhelming) growth in wages for people in the middle and the bottom. If Jeb Bush were her opponent, it would offer an opportunity to have a historically grounded discussion about everything that has happened since his father was president.

Because I’ve yet to hear Republicans explain that history. If they tried to, they’d have to confront the fact that at every key point, their predictions about what effect policy changes would have turned out completely wrong. When Bill Clinton passed his 1993 budget with an increase in the top income tax rate, they all said that a “job-killing recession” was sure to result (I assume the phrase came from Newt Gingrich, because its use was so ubiquitous during that time). What actually ensued was not a recession but a rather remarkable boom; there were nearly 23 million more Americans working when Clinton handed off the White House to George W. Bush than when Clinton took office eight years before. Bush then committed himself to cutting taxes, particularly those affecting the wealthy—not just income taxes but taxes on investments and large inheritances as well. Republicans predicted that these policy changes would produce an economy practically bursting with wonderful new jobs for all.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Total job growth during the Bush years was a meager 1.3 million. Even if we’re unusually kind to Bush and go back to the high point of jobs in his administration (the end of 2007, before the Great Recession), he would only score a 5.6 million increase, or around one quarter of what Clinton managed.

Then Barack Obama allowed some of those top-tier tax cuts to expire, despite Republicans’ protestation that doing so would create a ball and chain dragging the economy down. Once again, disaster did not ensue; 2014 was the best year for job growth since 1999.

Like a number of liberals before me, I’ll take pains to note that this history doesn’t demonstrate that increasing taxes on the wealthy produces job growth. What it does show is that relatively small changes in the wealthy’s taxes have little effect on the economy one way or the other. Yet the idea that altering the tax burden on the wealthy produces enormous economy-wide effects is still central to conservative economic thinking. And it’s about as fanciful as the idea that Abraham Lincoln was a states’ rights advocate.

Unlike some of the policy debates we engage in, this history of the last couple of decades is pretty easy for voters to understand, since most of them lived through it. And nothing would make it more obvious than a general election between Bill Clinton’s wife and George W. Bush’s brother.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, February 15, 2015

February 17, 2015 - Posted by | Election 2016, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush | , , , , , , , ,

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