There’s a lot being spoken about the 2016 presidential election. What isn’t being said is far more interesting.
Indeed, there are two principal unspokens in the run-up to the next presidential campaign. The first is the quiet Republican hope that maverick Sen. Elizabeth Warren will challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the left in the Democratic primaries. The second is the anguish Republican candidates are having in trying to figure out how to address economic issues.
At the heart of both of these unspokens is the increasingly apparent wealth gap. You don’t have to read Thomas Piketty's “Capital in the 21st Century” — many more people have quoted or bought the groundbreaking book than have actually read it — to acknowledge that the wealth gap is the economic issue of the decade. A report issued last Sunday by Emmanuel Saez, the University of California, Berkeley, economist, affirmed that the top 1 percent of Americans captured 91 percent of the growth in incomes in the first three years of the recovery, a figure ameliorated in 2012 and 2013 by higher top tax rates.
This wealth gap undermines the animating mythology of American life (captured in one name: Horatio Alger). It questions the principal shorthand of the national ethos (captured in one alluring phrase: the American Dream). It challenges both the usual totems of the George W. Bush Republicans (the magic of free markets) and the usual prescriptions of the Barack Obama Democrats (the conviction that an activist government can soften the harsh edges of capitalism).
The Republicans want a Warren challenge to Mrs. Clinton in part for the sport of it. They so dislike the onetime New York senator that they relish anything that exposes her vulnerabilities, or discovers new ones, especially if the effort pins on her the talisman (“toady of Wall Street”') they have been trying to lose themselves since they nominated Wendell Willkie for president in 1940. In truth, Mrs. Clinton and her husband, the 42nd president, cozied up to Wall Street for reasons Willie Sutton wasn’t alone in understanding. That's where the money is.
The chances of Ms. Warren entering the presidential campaign remain small, and not for the usual reasons (she's relatively unknown and is only a freshman senator — a description that also fits Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, and it was no impediment to Mr. Obama). She’s reluctant to challenge another female who is, by every poll, a prohibitive favorite for the nomination. At the moment, Mrs. Clinton’s support among Democrats is seven times as great as that of the Massachusetts senator, according to the latest CNN Poll.
The Republicans began as a party of rights but ended up being a party of economic opportunity — precisely the opposite 20th-century passage of the Democrats — and so now the wealth gap is a peculiarly perplexing challenge for them. In the waning years of the Great Society, Ronald Reagan began questioning the Democrats’ prescriptions for economic opportunity, an effort that through four presidential campaigns (1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984) he developed into a new ethos with its own catch-phrase (“opportunity society”).
So deep did that catch-phrase penetrate that, nearly a year before the 2012 election, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who would eventually win the GOP presidential nomination, framed his campaign as a choice between the “opportunity society” of the Republicans and the “entitlement society” of the Democrats.
Democrats for a few tantalizing weeks may have luxuriated in portraying Mr. Romney, who until Friday morning considered a 2016 presidential campaign, as a Harvey Comics figure (Richie Rich redux) but he actually has been supporting an increase in the minimum wage for eight months. He did so with the pointed aside that, as he put it, “I part company with many of the conservatives in my party on the issue.”
Now, many of those same conservatives are struggling to find ways to address the wealth gap. The new Republicans — and not only those affiliated with the Tea Party insurgents — are loathe to associate themselves with figures of great wealth like Mr. Romney, whose possible appearance in the 2016 race was for them a disturbing symbol of the resilience of the East Coast establishment that GOP rebels have remonstrated against since the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964.
But just as Democrats have adopted many of the characteristics of the Republicans they once reviled — this began as early as 1982, when the party cozied up to big-money interests with fresh but awkward ardor — the Republicans are adopting many of the characteristics of the Democrats. Since 1988 and the presidential candidacy of Rep. Jack F. Kemp of New York, Republicans have become increasingly comfortable with populist rhetoric.
Before he died in 2009, Mr. Kemp, who was the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee in 1996, teamed up with an unlikely ally, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, a Democrat and liberal. “The gap between rich and poor has grown worrisome to many of us,” they wrote, adding: “A cherished piece of the American Dream — the notion that individuals have the opportunity to rise beyond their parent’s economic status — is not standing up to scrutiny.”
Mr. Kemp was the mentor to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who followed him 16 years later as the GOP vice presidential nominee, on the Romney ticket. Mr. Ryan, who has said he would not run for president in 2016, moved last month from the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee to the head of the House Ways and Means Committee. In those committee chambers, as on the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire, the new Republican response to the wealth gap will be shaped.
It may be the most important policy debate either party will have in the two years leading to the election. The Democratic debate will be a discussion around Mrs. Clinton's Wall Street ties and will produce some heat but no light, much emotion but little thoughtful analysis. The Republican debate will be far more difficult, far more intellectual and far more nuanced.
This is where the enduring significance of the Republican struggle will lie. It will be a horse race, to be sure. Not only is the entire field open, the policy debate is wide open, too. The Republicans will talk of an opportunity society, but their debate will be an opportunity for our society.