The Irony of the Dynasty

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are both potential leaders of parties that have abandoned policies associated with their families.

Jeb Bush.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
June 25, 2014, 6:30 p.m.

The para­dox of a pos­sible 2016 pres­id­en­tial race between Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jeb Bush is that each would be seek­ing to lead a party that has largely aban­doned the policies as­so­ci­ated with their fam­ily name.

Each as can­did­ates would in­her­it enorm­ous ad­vant­ages in fun­drais­ing, or­gan­iz­a­tion, and name iden­ti­fic­a­tion from the net­works of sup­port­ers tied to their fam­ily. But each would also bear the bur­den of de­fend­ing polit­ic­al and policy tra­di­tions that have dimmed in their party since Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush held the White House.

Call it the irony of the dyn­asty. Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jeb Bush “both tend to­ward the tech­no­crat­ic and ma­na­geri­al parts of their party,” says lib­er­al lead­er Robert Reich, Bill Clin­ton’s Labor sec­ret­ary. “The ques­tion is wheth­er the elect­or­ate has moved in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion.”

The com­bin­a­tion of a shift­ing elect­or­al co­ali­tion, stormi­er eco­nom­ic cli­mate, and grow­ing con­gres­sion­al po­lar­iz­a­tion has led each side away from the cent­rism that Bill Clin­ton con­sist­ently, and George W. Bush in­ter­mit­tently, pur­sued. Each party today mostly fol­lows the por­tion of each man’s agenda that re­af­firmed its tra­di­tion­al pri­or­it­ies. Demo­crats from Pres­id­ent Obama on down still echo Clin­ton’s em­phas­is on in­vest­ing in hu­man cap­it­al and “mak­ing work pay.” Re­pub­lic­ans re­prise Bush’s push for tax cuts, less reg­u­la­tion, and en­ti­tle­ment re­form.

But each party has deem­phas­ized, or even in­terred, many of the new ap­proaches the two pres­id­ents ad­vanced to court new con­stitu­en­cies. Par­tic­u­larly in his 2000 cam­paign and early White House years, Bush sought to ex­pand the GOP’s reach with his agenda of “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism.” Though that re­form mes­sage was even­tu­ally sub­sumed by the es­cal­at­ing par­tis­an struggle over the Ir­aq War, Bush broke from Re­pub­lic­an or­tho­doxy to sup­port a stronger fed­er­al role in edu­ca­tion (through his No Child Left Be­hind le­gis­la­tion); im­mig­ra­tion re­form that in­cluded a path­way to cit­izen­ship; more fed­er­al sup­port for faith-based char­it­ies; and the cre­ation of a Medi­care pre­scrip­tion-drug be­ne­fit.

Today many Re­pub­lic­ans have re­nounced all of those po­s­i­tions. In­deed, the tea-party move­ment began co­ales­cing dur­ing Bush’s second term as a back-to-ba­sics back­lash against his “big-gov­ern­ment con­ser­vat­ism.”

“Be­cause Pres­id­ent Bush was very sol­id from the base’s per­spect­ives on taxes and the cul­ture of life, that al­lowed him to ini­tially reach out on some oth­er is­sues where they wer­en’t en­thu­si­ast­ic, like im­mig­ra­tion and edu­ca­tion,” notes Peter Wehner, a former seni­or Bush White House strategist. “When events began to go south for him in the second term “¦ some of those things they began to rebel against.”

That re­bel­lion has raged hot­test against the policy that ul­ti­mately stamped Bush’s ten­ure above all: na­tion-build­ing through mil­it­ary force in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq. Tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an hawks still de­fend those choices. But dis­il­lu­sion­ment with those in­ter­ven­tions has vastly en­larged the audi­ence in­side the GOP for crit­ics like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who this week again ex­cor­i­ated Bush’s de­cision to in­vade Ir­aq.

Even while cel­eb­rat­ing his eco­nom­ic re­cord, Demo­crats have like­wise down­played many of Bill Clin­ton’s sig­na­ture “New Demo­crat” ideas. Obama has stressed budget dis­cip­line or gov­ern­ment re­form much less than his pre­de­cessor, and while he’s up­held Clin­ton’s back­ing for free trade, that idea has faded fur­ther among le­gis­lat­ive Demo­crats. The party has moved even more de­cis­ively away from Clin­ton’s sup­port for fin­an­cial de­reg­u­la­tion and re­ceptiv­ity to de­ploy­ing mil­it­ary force. Most em­phat­ic­ally, Obama has led Demo­crats to­ward an un­swerving cul­tur­al lib­er­al­ism on is­sues like gay mar­riage that con­trasts with Clin­ton’s ef­forts to re­as­sure so­cially con­ser­vat­ive voters through ac­tions like sign­ing the De­fense of Mar­riage Act.

On both sides, these shifts have been driv­en partly by events (like the fin­an­cial crash and dis­con­tent over the Ir­aq War). But they also re­flect changes in each party’s elect­or­al co­ali­tion and strategy. Much of Clin­ton’s agenda was fo­cused on hold­ing cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive blue-col­lar and older whites. But, like an ice­berg shear­ing away, that con­ser­vat­ive end of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion has now broken off and moved de­cis­ively to­ward the GOP; Demo­crats have re­placed them with grow­ing pop­u­la­tions of more re­li­ably lib­er­al minor­it­ies and mil­len­ni­als.

While non­col­lege whites sup­plied nearly half of Clin­ton’s total 1992 vote, they provided only one-fourth of Obama’s 2012 sup­port. Self-iden­ti­fied lib­er­als rep­res­en­ted just one-third of Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers — but 43 per­cent of Obama’s. These in­ter­twined shifts have al­lowed — and even re­quired — Demo­crats to pur­sue a more uni­formly lib­er­al agenda, par­tic­u­larly on so­cial is­sues.

The GOP, mean­while, has grown more con­ser­vat­ive, anti-Wash­ing­ton, and pop­u­list (par­tially be­cause it’s ab­sorb­ing those dis­af­fected, down­scale former Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­en­cies). As the Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­cently re­por­ted, the share of Re­pub­lic­ans who take con­sist­ently con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions has spiked from one-third in 1999 to more than half today.

Hil­lary Clin­ton (on fisc­al dis­cip­line and mil­it­ary force) and Jeb Bush (on im­mig­ra­tion and com­mon-core edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards) have already signaled their de­sire to tilt their party back to­ward some of the ap­proaches their fam­ily cham­pioned. Through their strong per­son­al ap­peal, each might suc­ceed in places. But as can­did­ates each could face more pres­sure than they now ex­pect to prove that they will fairly re­flect their party’s new align­ment — and are not just seek­ing to re­in­state a fallen fam­ily re­gime.

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