Washington (CNN)Two years ago, Republicans were accusing President Barack Obama of waging class warfare. Now, they're all talking about income inequality.
Dems, GOP make middle-class pitch
Neurosurgeon and conservative favorite Ben Carson was the latest to touch on the issue, raising it during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" -- and offering a critique of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney's now-infamous comments that 47% of the population is dependent on government and would therefore never support Republicans.
"He made one major mistake," Carson said. "He assumed that they all had the same mentality. They don't. A lot of people in that 47% are very anxious to experience the American dream."
He said turning that 2012 liability into a 2016 strength is possible for "creative" Republicans.
"I think that the Republican Party has a splendid opportunity to make the case that we want those people who are dependent in our society to be independent," Carson said. "We're creative people. If we use our resources, we can lift people out of poverty as well."
A growing number of Republicans have pointed to growing income inequality as a problem -- although they haven't yet offered many specific details on how they're proposing to tackle it, or how addressing the issue will change their overall agendas.
Still, the frequency with which it's being mentioned on the pre-campaign trail underscores its emergence as a prominent 2016 theme.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- who's even named his political action committee "Right to Rise" -- hit income inequality in a big way during a widely watched speech last week to the Detroit Economic Club, a venue that's a frequent stop on the road to the White House.
He said that "the American dream has become a mirage for far too many," and said he'd be offering policies to change that reality.
He also criticized Obama for hampering the economic recovery, even though the unemployment rate is now down to 5.7%.
"The recovery has been everywhere but in the family paychecks," Bush said.
Other Republican candidates have worked to show they're in touch with struggling Americans.
Sen. Marco Rubio often mentions that he's the son of a bartender and a maid. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky says he shops at Walmart.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who stole the show at a recent Iowa conservative confab hosted by Rep. Steve King, said he fears the "American dream" is becoming less attainable when he unveiled his budget proposal to state legislators last week.
"I worry that too many of our fellow citizens feel that dream has become out of reach for them and their families," he said.
But Walker is coupling his message with an effort to curb reliance on government -- in part by expanding Wisconsin's mandate that food stamp recipients enroll in an employment and training program.
Before he decided not to mount a third campaign for president, even Romney -- whose stumbles during the 2012 campaign helped Democrats accuse his party of indifference toward those who are struggling economically -- was trying to make income inequality a key theme headed into 2016.
"Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before," Romney said at a Republican National Committee meeting in California last month.
Income inequality is a hot topic on the left, too -- where Democrats have long embraced ideas like increasing the minimum wage and raising the capital gains tax.
The New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton, the front-runner by far in the Democratic field, is considering policy ideas to address the issue without vilifying the rich.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has firmly staked out ground to the left of Clinton and Obama, by opposing new trade deals and pushing for pro-union reforms. He's expected to discuss those themes in a 12-point economic speech Monday at the Brookings Institution.
And liberals have continued their -- thus far, unsuccessful -- effort to draft Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the race.
Both sides have concluded that with the unemployment rate dipping, sagging wages are the next major economic challenge.
In 2013, the median net worth of upper-income families was $640,000 -- almost seven times the $96,500 that middle-income families earned, and the highest gap in 30 years, according to the Pew Research Center's analysis of Federal Reserve data released in December.
Republicans have argued in recent months that the economic recovery is hollow with wages stagnated and many people still dropped out of the labor force.
The issue could be key for Republicans to bolster their hopes in 2016 -- especially since in 2012, 58% of white non-college graduates voted for the GOP, while 40% voted for the Democrat.