Optimism vs. Anger: Question Dividing Bush From Sanders and Trump

Presidential candidates in both parties are framing debate about the nation’s future in starkly different terms

BN-JI850_CAPJOU_M_20150713095656Jeb Bush is running for president on the optimist ticket.

Listen to the Republican candidate talk at a town-hall meeting in Hudson, N.H., last week: “I really believe that we’re on the verge of the greatest time to be alive in this world…What we’re moving toward is a time of great abundance, it’s a time when people will be able to live life with purpose and meaning.”

Political leaders must fix some “really big” problems to get to that point, he added. “But if we do it, with leadership in Washington, D.C., particularly, this will be an extraordinary time to be alive.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, by contrast, are running on the anger ticket.

Mr. Sanders, drawing big crowds and faring surprisingly well among Democrats, says he wants to lead “a political revolution” by “millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back” against billionaires, super PACs and lobbyists.

Mr. Trump, running surprisingly well among Republicans, says he is seeking the presidency because he is “tired of these nice people” running the country. “We have losers,” he says. “We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.”

This optimism vs. anger divide is one of the deepest of the 2016 campaign, almost as deep as the one between the two parties. The question is: Which school has the best fix on America’s mood today—the one that says great days are within reach, or the one that says you’re being shafted by elitists and it’s time to strike back?

Hope usually is a better political message than is despair, and that certainly is Mr. Bush’s calculation. “I think that is the real dividing line between the candidates,” says one Bush adviser. “Who is running on grievance, with a rearview mirror and list of complaints, and who is running forward with optimism and a positive conservative vision?”

In a sense, Mr. Bush is offering the 2016 version of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” message of a bright future that lies just ahead for the U.S. But it wasn’t just Mr. Reagan in 1980 and 1984 who found that optimism had resonance. Bill Clinton won in 1992 with a message that Hope wasn’t merely the name of his Arkansas hometown, but also the idea he would bring to Washington. Barack Obama won in 2008 after writing a best-seller titled “The Audacity of Hope.”

As Mr. Bush sees it, the way to fulfill his hopeful vision is to clear away tax and regulatory hurdles that hold economic growth at an “anemic” 2% and raise it to 4% a year. “Growing at 4% will lift people out of poverty and will give the middle class a pay raise, the first one that they’ve had in 15 years,” he said in New Hampshire. “We’ll restore our optimism about what the future looks like.”

Sen. Marco Rubio has some of the same uplift in his message, with a generational twist. He argues that a younger leader has a better chance of ushering in this new era of American hope than one who has been around for a while.

The angry message has a different starting point. Its premise is that America has lost its grip on greatness, and that average Americans can blame somebody else: Billionaires who are taking more than their share and then using the money to buy politicians to keep things that way. Bankers who used influence to buy their way out of the financial crisis with policies that helped them while doing nothing for the middle class. Crony capitalists who work out trade deals that help their companies while hurting workers.

This is the populist message of 2016, and perhaps not a surprising one given the halting recovery from a deep recession and financial crisis that reached far beyond Wall Street to whack homeowners across the land.

In the Sanders view, the key economic indicator isn’t the unemployment rate but the underemployment rate, and the barometer for national progress isn’t growth in the gross domestic product but rather ending stagnation in the wage rate.

On the GOP side, Mr. Trump has not only picked up this theme, but embellished it with outrageous statements that, typically for this early stage of the race, get a lot of attention. Sen. Ted Cruz, while laying claim to the Reagan mantle, also brings an un-Reagan-like level of anger to the stage.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, campaigning for president by urging his party to pay more attention to the sentiments of blue-collar Republicans, says he senses a “great uncertainty and unease,” especially among those “underemployed in jobs that are not meeting their expectations.” A key to 2016 is which message—optimism or anger—resonates most deeply with them.

 

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