It's the responsibility of a presidential frontrunner to set the terms of the debate. On July 13th, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did this in a New York city speech, describing her plans to address economic inequality and related concerns.
Technically, this was a "framing" speech where Clinton established certain themes and phrases. The title was "a new plan to build a fair and growing economy" and the dominant theme was "raising incomes for everyday Americans."
Clinton asserted that it is possible for the US economy to continue to grow while the distribution of returns is altered, becoming more equitable. "While America is standing again, we are not yet running the way we should. Corporate profits are at near record highs and Americans are working as hard as ever. But paychecks [have merely] budged in real terms." Clinton used a chart showing that over the course of 65 years US productivity has grown 240 percent but hourly compensation has increased only 108 percent.
The candidate established the framing pillars of her address: "To raise incomes we need: strong growth plus fair growth resulting in long-term growth."
For Clinton, "strong growth" has two sectors: stimulus for business and new opportunities for workers. Clinton said: "Small businesses create more than 60 percent of new American jobs on net, so they have to be a top priority" throughout this campaign, I'm going to be talking about how we empower entrepreneurs with less red tape, easier access to capital, tax relief and simplification."
The candidate promised to push for "business tax reform" and to close "loopholes that reward companies for sending jobs and profits overseas." She also touted public investment such as, "an infrastructure bank that can channel more public and private" funds to finance world-class airports, railways, roads, bridges and ports."
Clinton also promised to breakdown barriers "so more Americans participate more fully in the workforce." The candidate emphasized she will champion progress for women, noting that, "The US ranks 19th out of 24 developed countries in women's labor force participation." Clinton continued: "Another engine of strong growth should be comprehensive immigration reform" Bringing millions of hardworking people into the formal economy would increase our gross domestic product by an estimated $700 billion over 10 years."
For many Democrats, the heart of Clinton's economic agenda was her proposals for "fair growth." "Inequality is a drag on our entire economy." Her proposals include raising the minimum wage and strengthening Obamacare. Clinton continued: "I will produce ways to encourage companies to share profits with their employees. That is good for workers and good [for] businesses. Studies show that profit sharing that gives everyone a stake in the company's success can boost productivity and put money directly into employees' pockets." She added, " it's time to stand up to efforts across our country to undermine worker bargaining power."
Clinton called for tax-code reform: "First, hard-working families need and deserve tax relief and simplification. Second, those at the top have to pay their fair share. That's why I support the Buffet Rule, which makes sure millionaires do not pay lower rates than their secretaries."
The third pillar of Clinton's economic agenda is long-term growth: "Too many pressures in our economy push us toward short-termism." "I will soon be proposing a new plan to reform capital gains taxes to reward longer-term investments that create jobs, more than just quick trades." She spoke of incentives that would encourage businesses to improve productivity by training workers and raising their wages.
Clinton concluded: "I'm running for president to build an America for tomorrow, not yesterday, an America built on growth and fairness, an America where if you do your part, you will reap the rewards, where we don't leave anyone behind."
How does the Hillary Clinton vision contrast with that of the Republican frontrunners? Jeb Bush plans to grow the economy 4 percent per year but hasn't said how he will do that. He also plans to cut government spending but declined to specify where. In the past year, Bush has talked about income inequality, saying he would deal with it "by tax reform, entitlement reform, regulatory reform."
Donald Trump has a five-part plan. The centerfold is a vast tax-reduction plan including elimination of corporate taxes and the inheritance tax. Trump would also lower taxes on capital gains and dividends. (This is 'trickle-down economics taken to a new extreme.) Trump would also crackdown on illegal immigrants and China's currency manipulation.
In contrast to Bush and Trump, Scott Walker's economic plan is embryonic. Walker plans to cut taxes and to reduce federal spending but is not specific. (Walker's economic record as Governor of Wisconsin has been unimpressive.)
It seems likely that income inequality will be a major topic in the 2016 presidential contest. Given her July 13th speech, it seems that Hillary Clinton is best prepared to address this. The likely Republican candidates are stuck with a reprise of failed Reagan-era trickle-down policies: cut taxes for the rich, eliminate regulations, and reduce public services.