Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton badly need each other. They cancel out each others’ greatest weaknesses and deprive their foes of some of their strongest arguments.
Both have similar flaws and are vulnerable to the same charges: that they are too old (Jeb would be 63 on election day 2016; Hillary, 69), too out of practice (Jeb was last elected governor of Florida in 2002; Hillary was last elected senator from New York in 2006), too tied to previous presidents (their close relatives have won five of the last seven presidential elections).
Moreover, both Jeb and Hillary are essentially mainstream figures, and to their critics on the ideological edges, they are far too cozy with Wall Street and other bastions of the Evil Establishment.
Put it another way: If the choice is a Bush vs. a Clinton, one aging member of a family dynasty with ties to Big Money has to win. Neither nominee would have to worry about an insurgent opponent promising a fresh new face (like, say, a junior senator from Illinois).
These musings are prompted by the rather coy announcement posted on Facebook that Bush “will actively explore the possibility of running for president” in 2016. That post is clearly part of a well-orchestrated campaign to tease voters with a series of winks and nods that generate media attention, build a sense of anticipation and signal potential staffers and funders to avoid committing to other candidates.
Sound familiar? Clinton has been performing a similar dance for at least a year. Of course either one – or both – could pull back at the last minute. But don’t bet on it. And the closer each one gets to running, the more encouraged the other is to plunge in, as well.
The bumper stickers have already been written. For Jeb: “Can the Clintons. Stop Hillary.” For Hillary: “Beat the Bushes. Stop Jeb.” Within hours of Jeb’s Facebook message, the Democratic National Committee sent out a fundraising appeal featuring a picture of his brother George that warned, “Think about how President Bush worked out last time.”
Savvy Democrats fear Jeb, and for good reason. Both his father and brother were resourceful politicians who demonstrated an ability to placate conservatives while appealing to moderates. Bush 41 promised a “kinder, gentler nation,” and Bush 43 fashioned himself a “compassionate conservative.” The man who wants to be Bush 45 has crafted a similar profile.
He starts with high name-recognition, and in the latest McClatchy-Marist poll, he attracts 14 percent of Republican voters, second only to Mitt Romney’s 19 percent. He was twice governor of a critical swing state and cannot be demonized as a hare-brained extremist.
For example, Jeb has always refused to sign a pledge – popular among his fellow Republicans – to never raise taxes. In 2012, he said he would accept a deal offered by Democrats that combined spending cuts and revenue raisers in one package.
He also favors the Common Core, a set of national educational standards, and a testing program that holds local schools accountable for their performance. “If you don’t measure, you don’t really care,” he recently told a Wall Street Journal forum.
The most obvious example of Jeb’s kinder, gentler approach is immigration. Married to a woman from Mexico, he speaks Spanish, polls well with Latino voters and favors a path to citizenship for undocumented newcomers.
Last April, he said of those illegal immigrants: “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love; it’s an act of commitment to your family.”
That kind of language led David Axelrod, an influential Democratic strategist, to say on MSNBC, “If Jeb sticks to his guns on these issues, he’s got tremendous appeal to the Hispanic community. He could be a very formidable candidate.”
Of course, the hard-right-wingers in the GOP base despise the very qualities that would make him a “very formidable candidate” in a general election. Talk radio host Mark Levin made a typical comment about Jeb in the Washington Examiner: “He’s very boring. He doesn’t elicit excitement and energy outside a very small circle of wealthy corporatists and GOP Beltway operatives. Time to move on.”
To win the nomination, he has to overcome those critics; to win the White House, he has to avoid being pushed too far to the right during the primaries. And in that effort, Hillary Clinton would be his strongest ally. Because Bush can say to his party’s base: I’m the Republican with the best chance of beating her.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.