Bush Versus Clinton: Deja Vu, All Over Again

Clinton vs Bush- again

Bush Versus Clinton: Deja Vu, All Over Again
| Published Friday, April 11, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

According to many recent polls, conducted by a variety of major news organizations and polling groups, former Secretary of State and former First Lady Hillary Clinton can afford to be coy about her presidential ambitions for 2016. Her name leads every other Democrat by double digits, and at the moment few Republicans come close.

Still, Clinton has been notably cagey. One thing she is not known for, however, is indecision. There is a difference between cagey and indecisive.

Clinton may in fact be the de facto front runner of the Democratic Party, and indeed the leading candidate of both parties, if those early polls are to be believed. But in the interim and with every passing month, her delayed announcement effectively shuts out competitors by inhibiting any form of fundraising.

Conversely, with a defiant New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apparently damaged (perhaps not mortally) by scandal, the GOP must begin the process soon—very soon—of cultivating its next leader. Aside from Christie, the Republican short list contains several high-profile names: Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz.

And then there is Jeb Bush. Bush has been coy, or cagey, or whichever term best applies. Some would also say the son of George H.W. Bush and the brother of George W. Bush has been indecisive.

Clinton and Bush, each for their reasons, seem to be willing to wait before stepping officially into the arena. But Jeb Bush’s decision is far more complex than Clinton’s. If Jeb Bush decides to run, Americans will face one of the biggest family-name rematches in history, and not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

One upon a time, even for a presumed party leader, a delaying tactic could result in problems. That’s why in the old days heavyweights announced early, began collecting those big endorsements and started their fundraising juggernauts immediately. By making their candidacies official well in advance of the first primaries and caucuses, presumed party leaders could scare off competition—at least all but the most brazen and brave.

In the run-up to the elections of 1984, Walter Mondale used that playbook to the letter. He cultivated all the right interest groups, collected those endorsements—wearing them like badges on his lapel—and watched the money roll in. In 2000, both George W. Bush and Al Gore engaged essentially the same strategic plan. By the time the first primaries and caucuses came along, both were the de facto front-runners of their respective parties, despite vigorous challenges from John McCain and Bill Bradley. And Hillary Clinton, in 2008, also played the game straight down the middle, piling up the endorsements and raking in so much early cash from the Democratic Party heavy hitters that she had nearly reached her legal fundraising ceiling among the big donors by the time challenger Barack Obama appeared on her radar.

But this election cycle is different. Hillary Clinton stands very nearly alone among potential candidates for 2016. It is rare that a non-incumbent election year sees such fertile ground for a single candidate. Only Chris Christie showed any sign of true challenge, but that was many months ago—before those now infamous lane closures on the George Washington Bridge and before the New Jersey governor saw his political fortunes fall off a cliff. Christie may recover, but even among his Republican allies, there is concern that any presidential run in 2016 may turn out to be disaster for the GOP.

In the unlikely event that Clinton decides not to run, the Democratic Party faces a replay of 1988, one of the worst-case scenarios that the Democrats ever faced. In 1987, presumed party leader and heir apparent, Colorado’s Gary Hart, suffered the worst political meltdown of his era when he was found to have lied to reporters about his extra-marital affairs. Attention turned instead to the Empire State, where the party’s next savior resided, and later that year, after nearly a year of being cagey about his presidential ambitions, then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo announced emphatically (and finally) that he would not run for the Democratic nomination. His long, arduous torment was over, but it had frozen the party’s fundraising and endorsement processes.

What was left in the wake of Hart’s self-destruction and Cuomo’s indecision was “The Seven Dwarfs,” a cadre of lesser-known names which included, among others, Bruce Babbitt, Paul Simon, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt, and Michael Dukakis. The party suffered through a bruising, nasty, and expensive primary and caucus season, and by the time Dukakis was able to seal the deal after Super Tuesday, it was too late for his team to develop a cohesive strategy or to begin the business of raising money. Though the Democrats smelled and tasted victory after eight years of Ronald Reagan, they lost instead in a crushing landslide to vice president George H.W. Bush.

But the smart money is making no such doomsday prediction for 2016. Almost everyone (Democrat or Republican) believe that Hillary Clinton will run. And even those Democrats hovering in the wings—Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren, Brian Schweitzer, Martin O’Malley—there is reticence to even talk about a run in 2016. If Clinton decides to run, she is the presumed nominee, and most think that the early primaries will be a mere formality.

But in the absence of Chris Christie, there is no such consensus among the Republican names: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, even Marco Rubio, who was given the single best GOP convention speech time slot when he placed Mitt Romney’s name in nomination in Tampa in 2012.

That leaves Jeb Bush, whose own lukewarm speech at that same convention may have been an early indication of just how deeply his indecision runs. Where his fellow Floridian Rubio delivered an eloquent clarion call for unity and the foundational experience of Republicanism, with words which harkened to Reagan, Bush’s speech was dry, even at times (how shall I say it?) sleep-inducing. (I was in the Tampa Bay Times Arena that night, and having known Bush from several previous meetings and in-person speeches, I expected something more potent and inspiring). Wedged in between Newt Gingrich and a video featuring Craig Romney, and only a short time before Clint Eastwood, Rubio and Romney would address the crowd, Bush had what was a nearly unlimited opportunity to hit a home run in front of a large national audience.

But Bush’s stock has been rising again steadily the past 12 months, long before Chris Christie’s near-implosion which began around the holidays. Even before the start of Bridgegate, Bush has been busy mending the GOP’s fences—many of them damaged badly during the 2012 campaign.

One of Bush’s most visible themes is education. Yes, lots of politicians talk a good game, but Bush has singled this issue out as one of the existential threats to American prestige and economic clout: without dramatic improvements to K-12 education and training, the have-nots will soon greatly outnumber the haves in this country. Worse, the U.S. will continue to lose ground in an increasingly competitive global economy.

During that low-key convention speech in Tampa, Bush made education his central theme, reminding delegates and those watching on TV that without a decent education, children have little opportunity to be fully equipped for a responsible adulthood, much less a job.

“The sad truth,” Bush said, “is that equality of opportunity doesn’t exist in many of our schools. We give some kids a chance, but not all. That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time, and it’s hurting all of America.”

Bush also bridges a gap that may have caused fatal damage to the Romney-Ryan ticket in 2012: the growing divide between Latinos and the GOP.

Though it may seem odd to younger readers, the Republican Party was once a natural political and social fit for many Latinos in the U.S. This comfortable relationship extended well beyond the conservative Cuban-American segments of the population—often concentrated heavily in places like Miami, Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale—and included a significant and politically active component of U.S. Latinos with roots in places as diverse as Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic.

But starting in the 1990s, this relationship began to fracture, eventually turning increasingly sour in the aught years. John McCain, almost alone among his GOP peers in 2008, faced withering incoming fire from other candidates for his nuanced, sensitive stance on immigration—especially as it related to Mexico. By 2012, the language had grown even harsher, and that long, arduous debate season proved fertile ground for extreme conversation on immigration. As I wrote in an article last summer, “no issue seemed to inflame the rhetoric more swiftly than immigration. The mere mention of the border between the U.S. and Mexico would trigger arguably the most vitriolic exchanges between the top candidates.”

In 2013, Bush and Clint Bolick co-authored a book called Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution. The cover of the book displays the Statue of Liberty, and the title itself, with that jarring juxtaposition of “wars” and “forging a solution” indicates the depth and complexity of an issue which may have done more damage to the GOP in 2012 than Romney’s now infamous 47% remark.

On this front, Bush has the advantage—even over the party’s pre-Christmas favorite Chris Christie. Jeb Bush, fluent in Spanish, married to a Mexican woman, has the ability to reach across that wide divide and talk eloquently and soberly about an issue which Republicans must make right before they can reclaim lost demographic ground. Bush understands that immigration is, at its core, an economic issue. The United States must now compete fiercely with the rest of the world for talent and skills, and our antiquated, fragmented and largely dysfunctional system for legal entry into America is inhibiting not merely economic recovery, but decades of future growth.

Jeb Bush also maintains a reputation as a balanced, long-view thinker; not one prone to tilting at windmills, and certainly slow to anger. He also seems refreshingly averse to being handled or managed, whether by the political spin doctors and marketers, or by his biggest contributors. In this sense, he may easily fit a GOP mainstream longing for a kinder, gentler tactical playbook. And in any theoretical debate match-up with Hillary Clinton, Bush may in fact contribute to an improvement in the timbre and tone of the national conversation—reducing it from the shouting-match style which turned the stomachs of so many voters in the last few elections.

This means that Bush will not be greatly liked by Fox News, Roger Ailes and the ilk, whose preference for mud wrestling and NASCAR smashup style politics gets good ratings but in fact produces little in the way of progress on the thorniest of issues. Bush and Clinton might actually have productive conversations in any debate, and the narrative of a deeply divided nation (shall I be this optimistic?) might have to take a back seat for a change.

But the downsides for Jeb Bush cannot be ignored. In a world without Chris Christie (and the jury is still out on whether the New Jersey Governor can bounce back from scandal in time to be taken seriously by his fellow Republicans between now and the Iowa Caucus, now only 20 months away), Bush may slide by default to the top of the list, edging out Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, but Bush may be perceived by some as a creature of the past. Senator Paul and Congressman Ryan have the ability, perhaps, to appeal to younger voters—if there are any younger voters left in the GOP’s future. Cruz, too, is young (born in 1970 to an oil engineer father from Cuba) and Latino to boot, which gives him some distinct advantages with native Spanish speakers. And despite an occasional media narrative of Cruz as buffoonish, he is smarter than nearly all of his colleagues in the U.S. House: Princeton, cum laude; Harvard; editor of the Harvard Law Review; and a boatload of academic credentials. Cruz is also, like Bush, an advocate of growth and opportunity, a combination of words he often says should be tattooed on the hand of every Republican.

But for Bush, there is also issue of time spent out of the arena. Bush has been away from the governor’s office for some time now—since 2007. In contemporary politics, that is an eternity—too long for some potential backers and donors who may have already moved on to other political priorities or personalities.

If he defers making an early decision, say by the end of this summer, Bush may also suffer mightily if heavy-hitter GOP donors decide to channel their cash elsewhere. Chris Christie, who has already proven his fundraising mettle by raising about $23.5 million for the Republican Governor’s Association, is less circumspect about his decision to run, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer recently that the bridge scandal will have no impact on his plans. Some in the GOP may value that cash-machine quality, easily setting aside any qualms about the remaining fallout from traffic cones on the George Washington Bridge. Tea Partiers will begin to migrate toward Ted Cruz, libertarians toward Rand Paul, fiscal hawks toward Paul Ryan.

Even if he emerges as the GOP man-to-beat, his money-raising efforts will have to rise to galactic proportions very quickly. Clinton, through various independent groups and committees, has already raised a warehouse of money. A group called Ready for Hillary netted over $4 million by late December and is on a roll luring big donors. And according to the FEC, billionaire George Soros has weighed in with a fat check of his own. Clinton can be expected to draw heavily on the entertainment and music crowd, merging her own fundraising lists with those of Obama’s, in essence creating one super list of Democratic givers. Bush, even with his name-recognition, will find this difficult to overcome.

But ultimately the biggest obstacle for Bush may be the Clinton name itself. The rematch of the two political dynasties would make for great television and even better blog debate, but would it make for actual progress?

I sometimes refer to the BCD phenomena: until Mitt Romney challenged Barack Obama in 2012, no American born after 1958 has been of voting age during a Presidential election that did not include a Dole, a Clinton or a Bush somewhere on the ballot. (Try it out: it’s a good way to test your history skills).

So the question becomes: are Americans in the mood for another match-up between a Bush and a Clinton?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Is Hillary Clinton Inevitable?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 12, 2014.

Immigration and the Human Dimension; book review of Immigration Wars, by Jeb Bush & Clint Bolick; Thursday Review.

No Business Like Show Business (Except Politics); R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review.

Chris Christie: Bridge to Nowhere; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 2, 2014.