Jeb and Hillary Are the Wrong Candidates for 2016

Donors are overrating brand-name contenders and missing the vulnerability their insider credentials will carry.

National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
May 6, 2014, 6:42 p.m.

Far too of­ten, polit­ic­al cov­er­age is based on the think­ing of con­sult­ants and donors, and doesn’t pay enough at­ten­tion to what the voters are ac­tu­ally think­ing. It’s why we fo­cus on pres­id­en­tial horse-race num­bers in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, which couldn’t be less pre­dict­ive, and are of­ten slow to pick up on the is­sues driv­ing grass­roots an­ger, like Com­mon Core. It’s why im­mig­ra­tion re­form rates as a top le­gis­lat­ive pri­or­ity in the minds of strategists over pro­pos­ing an eco­nom­ic agenda to as­suage voter anxi­et­ies.

And it’s why pun­dits and donors alike are vastly over­rat­ing the pro­spects of two brand-name can­did­ates for 2016 — Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jeb Bush — and un­der­valu­ing the real­ity that the cur­rent polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is as tox­ic as it’s ever been for lifelong politi­cians. At the most fun­da­ment­al level, the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion is shap­ing up to be a battle of which party can best con­quer its demons — wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans can im­prove their beaten brand, and wheth­er Clin­ton (or any oth­er Demo­crat) can present her­self as the can­did­ate of change, giv­en the high level of voter dis­sat­is­fac­tion.

A new Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey, re­leased Monday, un­der­scored the mal­aise suf­fus­ing the Amer­ic­an pub­lic, and the dif­fi­culty Clin­ton would face over­com­ing these real­it­ies as the nom­in­ee. Nearly two-thirds (65 per­cent) of re­spond­ents said they would like the next pres­id­ent to “of­fer dif­fer­ent policies and pro­grams” than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — a rate close to the 70 per­cent dis­sat­is­fac­tion level against George W. Bush at a com­par­able time. Even with re­l­at­ively stronger num­bers — only 50 per­cent wanted new policies in 1999 — Al Gore was un­able to cap­it­al­ize, in part be­cause of the pub­lic’s in­her­ent de­sire for change. Since World War II, there’s been only one stretch where one party has won three straight elec­tions (Ron­ald Re­agan and George H.W. Bush from 1980-1992).

Clin­ton’s chal­lenge will be to main­tain her above-wa­ter fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings, des­pite be­ing closely tied to an un­pop­u­lar ad­min­is­tra­tion. As Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist E.J. Di­onne writes, she needs to win over the one-eighth of voters who dis­ap­prove of Pres­id­ent Obama but view her fa­vor­ably. Ac­cord­ing to last week’s ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll, these pro-Hil­lary, anti-Obama voters are pre­dom­in­antly white (71 per­cent), blue-col­lar (47 per­cent whites without col­lege de­grees), and fe­male (63 per­cent). They’re even less likely to vote in this year’s midterms than the voters mak­ing up the pres­id­ent’s core co­ali­tion. Many of these voters have be­come dis­il­lu­sioned un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and have been trend­ing away from the Demo­crat­ic Party. The good news for Clin­ton is that they’re re­cept­ive to her can­did­acy. The bad news is that once she an­nounces as a can­did­ate, there’s a risk that her ap­peal fades away with these groups as Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks be­gin — and she’s un­able to match the ex­cite­ment Obama gen­er­ated with minor­it­ies and young voters.

At the most fun­da­ment­al level, the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion is shap­ing up to be a battle of which party can best con­quer its demons.

Re­pub­lic­ans also enter the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion with prob­lems and op­por­tun­it­ies. On the pos­it­ive side, their un­fa­vor­able num­bers aren’t pre­destined to per­sist, and choos­ing a com­pel­ling nom­in­ee would go a long way to­ward im­prov­ing the party’s im­age. The bad news is that the Grand Old Party has shown it rarely misses an op­por­tun­ity to miss an op­por­tun­ity. Their field is filled with up-and-com­ing pro­spects, from Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida to Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, but the party donors are fix­ated on flawed big­ger-name can­did­ates like Bush, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, and Rep. Paul Ry­an of Wis­con­sin, who all sport glar­ing flaws. If the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an primary taught any les­sons, it should prove that donors aren’t ex­actly the best judge of polit­ic­al tal­ent.

As ac­com­plished as Jeb Bush is, the no­tion that he’d be the party’s strongest con­tender against Clin­ton is fanci­ful — and that’s if he could even man­age to get out of a primary. He hasn’t won an elec­tion since 2002, he’s proven slow to ad­apt to the new me­dia land­scape and nav­ig­at­ing the wa­ters between es­tab­lish­ment lead­er­ship and the tea-party grass­roots. Most im­port­antly, his last name car­ries sig­ni­fic­ant bag­gage. Giv­en the per­vas­ive anti-in­sider en­vir­on­ment, would voters elect a third mem­ber of the same fam­ily? As the nom­in­ee, he’d pro­tect Clin­ton from her biggest vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies.

As I wrote last month, Bush’s protégé Ru­bio is the can­did­ate to watch closely giv­en his nat­ur­al polit­ic­al tal­ent and abil­ity to rack up con­ser­vat­ive chits while also re­main­ing in the es­tab­lish­ment’s good graces. Next Tues­day, the Flor­ida sen­at­or is giv­ing a speech on re­tire­ment se­cur­ity at the Na­tion­al Press Club — a smart course cor­rec­tion from his ill-ad­vised fo­cus on im­mig­ra­tion throughout much of 2013. He’s emer­ging as a lead­ing GOP for­eign policy voice crit­ic­al of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, an es­sen­tial as­set for 2016 — es­pe­cially if Clin­ton is the nom­in­ee and runs on her re­cord as sec­ret­ary of State. In this hy­per-scru­tin­iz­ing me­dia and polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, Ru­bio has the po­ten­tial celebrity star power to match Clin­ton and gen­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an ex­cite­ment. Marco Ru­bio (Win Mc­Namee/Getty Im­ages)

But giv­en the tea party’s de­mand for ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity and the donors’ pref­er­ence for a known com­mod­ity, the pro­spect of the most elect­able Re­pub­lic­an get­ting through the primary pro­cess — or es­cap­ing un­tain­ted — is far from guar­an­teed. And the pro­spect of a GOP Sen­ate takeover could eas­ily tempt a newly em­powered ma­jor­ity to em­bar­rass Obama with in­vest­ig­a­tions and polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated le­gis­la­tion. That wouldn’t be help­ful to the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, es­pe­cially if it’s a sen­at­or like Ru­bio or Sen. Rand Paul. (Ru­bio already has hin­ted at the pos­sib­il­ity of not run­ning for reelec­tion to the Sen­ate, a nod to the bag­gage of be­ing tied to Con­gress.)

Sur­vey­ing the cov­er­age of the out­size per­son­al­it­ies dom­in­at­ing polit­ic­al head­lines, it’s easy to for­get just how tur­bu­lent our polit­ics have been over the last dec­ade. After in­her­it­ing a re­ces­sion, Obama has failed to turn the eco­nomy around, in­stead spend­ing most of his polit­ic­al cap­it­al re­in­vent­ing the coun­try’s health care sys­tem. Our for­eign policy has veered from hawk­ish to dovish, with Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the world suf­fer­ing in both in­stances. With a lib­er­al pres­id­ent and deeply con­ser­vat­ive House, com­prom­ise has been in short sup­ply.

Voters are ex­press­ing a seem­ingly per­man­ent bit­ter­ness at Wash­ing­ton and our coun­try’s gov­ern­ing class. This year’s midterms are likely to be the fourth of five wave elec­tions since 2006. If 2016 is an­oth­er change elec­tion, be­ing the can­did­ate of the past will be a bur­den that won’t be eas­ily over­come.

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