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Did Jeb Bush really say Americans need to work more hours?

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Brian Snyder/Reuters

(Read caption) Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks during town hall campaign stop at the VFW Post in Hudson, N.H., on Wednesday.

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Did Jeb Bush really say Americans need to get up off the couch and work more hours? That’s what some Democrats – including putative 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton – are claiming Thursday due to comments Mr. Bush made to the New Hampshire Union Leader editorial board in an interview.

The context of Bush’s words is important here. He was talking about his overall economic goals for the nation. “My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see,” Bush told the Union Leader.

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That’s pretty ambitious. It’s boom-era territory. How would he manage that?

“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,” said Bush.

Democrats chose to take this at face value. They saw it as the first real gaffe of the campaign – the verbal equivalent of a spring crocus. Bush’s subtext, in their view, was this: That’s it slackers! Stop checking Facebook! You should be on the job. Take a second one if you have to.

“Americans are working pretty hard already & don’t need to work longer hours – they need to get paid more,” tweeted John Podesta, chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, in the hours after Bush’s statement was released.

Clinton herself weighed in shortly thereafter. She tweeted out a chart showing the growing gap between rising productivity and flat worker wages.

“Anyone who believes Americans aren’t working hard enough hasn’t met enough American workers,” wrote Clinton.

In reply, Bush and his campaign say he didn’t mean that comment the way it came out. That makes sense, given that implicitly calling US workers “lazy” is a good way for a politician to remain in the private sector. It’s as bad as saying that 47 percent of the population are spongers who won’t take responsibility for their lives.

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Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Anyway, Bush said in response that what he meant was part-time workers should be able to go full time if they want, and hourly workers in general should have the opportunity to work more if that’s best for their family. This is a real problem. Anyone who’s unwillingly relegated to part time, or knows a worker in such a situation, has heard the discussion: What are my hours? Can I have my hours? My supervisor is cutting hours – ugh.

“The simple fact is people are really struggling. So giving people a chance to work longer hours has got to be part of the answer,” said Bush at a town hall meeting Wednesday after his Union Leader remarks had been released.

OK, gaffe patrol called off, right? Pretty much – but there’s still an underlying difficulty for Bush revealed by this contretemps. How is he going to talk about the economy and middle class opportunity? Clinton is clearly making that a part of her campaign, with a populist twist. Bush needs talking points that appeal to middle- and lower-income workers.

Focusing on an ambitious goal for GDP isn’t bad in this sense. It’s optimistic, forward-looking. It’s morning in American factories. The problem is that 4 percent growth, as far as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman can see, is a really ambitious target, especially for a highly developed industrial economy. It’s a “unicorn," in the view of left-leaning writer Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.

And increasing productivity and working more hours is simply a description of economic growth, not a real plan for how to create it, according to Mr. Drum.

Lower taxes alone won’t do that, claims Drum.

“What’s the plan for making that happen? That’s what we’re interested in,” he writes.