If you need proof that upward mobility in America is increasingly elusive, consider the prospect of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush presidential race. A second President Clinton or a third President Bush would send the depressing message that Barack Obama’s classic American Dream ascent was a fluke.
There’s more to Clinton and Bush than their family names and financial networks, of course. They are both serious, experienced, credible leaders. But their advantages are also disadvantages. The downside of seasoning is that they have seemingly been on the scene forever. And notwithstanding Bill Clinton’s solid economic record and the sturdiness of the Bush brand among some mainstream Republicans, their names evoke weariness among voters who lived through Bill’s scandals and George W.’s wars, and anyone who believes that dynasties and democracy are incompatible.
Clinton and Bush need to find ways to convince the nation that they are turning the page — that they are the future, not the past. Bush furthermore needs to differentiate himself from his father and brother. And Clinton needs to make clear she is not the same candidate she was in 2008. In short, these overly familiar figures need to surprise us.
Bush’s support for comprehensive immigration reform and the Common Core education standards puts him at odds with much of his party. His current plan is to persuade the severely conservative GOP primary electorate, as Mitt Romney might describe it, that he’s right. “I’m not going to change what I believe. And my beliefs, I think, are good solid mainstream conservative thought,” Bush said told WPLG-TV in Miami this month. He said he doesn’t intend to repeat what he views as Romney’s mistake in the 2012 primaries: “He got sucked into other people’s agendas.”
Running the way Bush proposes is no recipe for success in conservative early primary states, but it would make for a bracing and compelling campaign, if possibly a short one. Adding to the drama, and of keen interest to all voters, would be insight into where the former two-term Florida governor would break from his relatives.
He has indicated he would be more interventionist than President Obama, but would he, like his brother, have invaded Iraq? He has talked about limited government, so what does he think of his brother’s Medicare prescription program paid for with borrowed money? When it comes to taxes, is he more like his brother (huge cuts that contributed to huge deficits) or his father (who closed deficits in part by going back on his word and raising taxes)? And what are his views on torture?
There’s already been reporting on where Clinton plans to put her 2016 presidential campaign headquarters and even which states she thinks she could win in a general election. Such speculation underscores her twin hazards of overexposure and inevitability. If and when she decides to run, how could she spark our interest?
For a start, Clinton could make income inequality a central theme of her campaign and do it her way. She’s no Elizabeth Warren and she shouldn’t try to be. The Massachusetts senator, with her longstanding attacks on a “rigged” system and the institutions that benefit from it, owns the firebrand populist niche. That’s not Clinton’s style or comfort zone, especially after her eight years representing Wall Street as a New York senator. When she lashes out at business, it doesn’t go well, as in her mangled critique of trickle-down economics last fall: “Don’t let anyone tell you that, um, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.”
What fits Clinton better is an appeal to high moral ground. You could characterize this approach as “we’re all in this together” or a form of tactful public shaming. Instead of attacking people who are benefiting from the rigged system, appeal to them on behalf of the common good and a healthier overall economy. Urge them to support a financial transactions tax and an end to ridiculously low tax rates for investment fund managers. Pick up on some of the ideas proposed by Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, such as lower taxes for corporations that cap CEO pay or raise worker wages to match productivity increases.
Clinton should also think carefully about whether to hire people on a listserv of some 150 Democratic operatives described as Clinton campaign aides in waiting. The emails, leaked to Rick Klein of ABC News and perfectly characterized as “bro-tastic” by The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, are classic frat boy towel-snapping. Her last campaign was marred by infighting and incompetence. This time around, she should hire adults who know what they’re doing and won’t embarrass her while they’re doing it. That will not only yield a better campaign, it will show she learns from mistakes.
Hillary and Jeb will never be fresh faces. But they can minimize that handicap by running as creative, evolving leaders who are not captive to their family legacies.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr