Jeb Bush's 'longer hours' remark may follow him for a long time

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush may have inadvertently given the Democrats their first attack ad of the presidential campaign this week when he inartfully detailed a prescription for economic growth that included the phrase “people need to work longer hours.”

Bush’s comment, part of an editorial board interview in New Hampshire that was streamed live Wednesday on Periscope, became instant fodder for Democrats seeking to portray the GOP front-runner, the son of one former president and brother of another, as out of touch with middle-class and working Americans. A blitz of disparaging news releases and tweets followed fast.

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“Anyone who believes Americans aren't working hard enough hasn't met enough American workers,” tweeted Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of Bush’s Democratic rivals.

The “longer hours” remark seems quickly destined to take its place in the annals of campaign gaffes that haunt candidates for some time. It has all the required elements: It sounds terrible. It’s caught on video. The context requires multiple sentences of explanation, maybe even some economic policy jargon. And, most important, it reinforces a theme opponents already are pushing.

The most recent predecessor in this category is “you didn’t build that,” the ill-conceived clause that gave President Obama trouble for much of his 2012 reelection campaign. Obama uttered the phrase in Roanoke, Va., in July 2012, borrowing from an Elizabeth Warren riff about how the government and educators help the wealthy get to where they are. Republicans quickly cast the president as trying to give the government credit for those successes. It became the stuff of billboards, T-shirts, talk radio, bumper stickers and attack ads.

(Democrats dished it out that year too. Mitt Romney suffered through “binders full of women” and “I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me.” The latter was made into a ringtone.)

That Bush’s statement is essentially accurate may not do much to stem the tide of trouble. The former Florida governor was discussing factors that would improve productivity and economic growth.

“My aspiration for the country -- and I believe we can achieve it -- is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see," he said in the interview with the Union Leader newspaper. "Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in."

Whether you believe Bush’s 4% target is realistic or not, the thrust of his argument about employment isn’t terribly controversial. Economists generally believe that addressing the number of people who work part-time but want to work full-time would increase economic growth. Roughly 6.5 million fit into that category.

“They are earning $30,000 less than those who are fully employed and they are falling behind,” Bush said in a blog post Thursday as he tried to contain the damage. “In New Hampshire this week, I talked about these struggling Americans who deserve the opportunity to work, who understand the value of work and who want to achieve earned success for their families.”

He then took a shot at Clinton.

“Hillary Clinton made it clear she disagrees with me. She thinks the economy is doing just fine. She thinks American workers are doing just fine. I’m not surprised. Hillary Clinton’s economic agenda can be summarized easily: Whatever Obama is doing, let’s double down on it.”

Twitter: @khennessey

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