Bush-Clin­ton fam­ily bag­gage

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - RON­ALD BROWN­STEIN Ron­ald Brown­stein is a se­nior writer at the Na­tional Jour­nal. rbrown­stein@na­tion­aljour­nal.com

As Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Jeb Bush for­mal­ize their pres­i­den­tial can­di­da­cies over the next few days, both face the com­plex chal­lenge of adapt­ing their fam­ily lega­cies to their par­ties’ new dy­nam­ics.

Com­pared with Bill Clin­ton’s era, the Demo­cratic Party to­day is more cul­tur­ally lib­eral and eco­nom­i­cally pop­ulist. Com­pared with Ge­orge W. Bush’s era, the GOP is more dog­mat­i­cally com­mit­ted to shrink­ing gov­ern­ment. Th­ese changes have pre­sented Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jeb Bush with the puz­zle of ap­peal­ing to par­ties that have grown more ide­o­log­i­cally mil­i­tant with­out re­nounc­ing the pol­icy agen­das and po­lit­i­cal strate­gies as­so­ci­ated with their fam­ily names — agen­das and strate­gies that of­ten de­fied each party’s tra­di­tional or­tho­doxy.

So far, this test has stumped Bush more than Clin­ton — as un­der­scored by the cam­paign­staff reshuf­fle the for­mer Florida gover­nor an­nounced this week, just be­fore he is due to of­fi­cially de­clare his can­di­dacy next Mon­day. His lack­lus­ter first months ex­plor­ing the race have been dom­i­nated by ques­tions of where he would ex­tend the poli­cies of his brother, Ge­orge W. Bush. That has ex­posed Jeb Bush to darts from ide­o­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tives and party prag­ma­tists most con­cerned about find­ing a can­di­date who can win.

The prag­ma­tists were dis­mayed by Bush’s strug­gles to ex­plain what he would have done dif­fer­ently from his brother in Iraq. That or­deal left Repub­li­cans fear­ing that if the party nom­i­nates Bush, Democrats would find it too easy to con­vert the cam­paign into a ref­er­en­dum on the poli­cies of the last Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Bush’s prob­lems with the right are rooted in two other el­e­ments of his brother’s le­gacy. Though staunchly con­ser­va­tive on most is­sues, Ge­orge W. Bush backed a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship for im­mi­grants here il­le­gally and an ag­gres­sive role for Wash­ing­ton in ed­u­ca­tion re­form. Po­lit­i­cally, each idea was in­tended to court vot­ers be­yond the GOP base.

Con­ser­va­tives chafed against those poli­cies dur­ing Bush’s pres­i­dency and, af­ter he left of­fice, suc­cess­fully eroded sup­port in the party for both ideas. But the younger Bush has said he would ac­cept ei­ther a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship or per­ma­nent legal sta­tus for those here il­le­gally, and he has de­fended the Com­mon Core cur­ricu­lum re­form.

Can Bush win th­ese ar­gu­ments in the GOP? De­spite loud re­sis­tance from prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tives, “Jeb Bush’s view on im­mi­gra­tion is … more ac­cept­able to Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers than most peo­ple as­sume,” notes Peter Wehner, se­nior fel­low at the Ethics and Public Pol­icy Cen­ter. While many Repub­li­can vot­ers view im­mi­gra­tion skep­ti­cally, in the lat­est Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey, nearly three-fifths of the party (in­clud­ing GOP-lean­ing in­de­pen­dents) said im­mi­grants here il­le­gally should be al­lowed to re­main here legally. That num­ber reached nearly two-thirds among the col­lege-ed­u­cated Repub­li­cans who are Bush’s nat­u­ral con­stituency.

Bush’s sup­port for Com­mon Core may be a tougher sell. But it’s prob­a­bly less im­por­tant for Bush to win the spe­cific de­bates over im­mi­gra­tion and ed­u­ca­tion than to sub­sume both is­sues be­neath bold new do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­icy ideas that ex­cite GOP vot­ers. So far he hasn’t done that. Un­less Bush can shift his cam­paign’s fo­cus to­ward the coun­try’s fu­ture, he’s likely to re­main stuck in de­bates over his party’s past.

Clin­ton, who kicks her cam­paign into higher gear with a ma­jor ad­dress Satur­day, hasn’t faced nearly as much pres­sure yet within her party but could even­tu­ally con­front her own le­gacy trap. Her an­nounced ri­vals, Sen. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont and for­mer Mary­land Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley, have de­nounced free­trade and fi­nan­cial-dereg­u­la­tion poli­cies that Bill Clin­ton pur­sued. Other Democrats worry about the Clin­ton fam­ily her­itage of eth­i­cal con­tro­versy. On both fronts, Clin­ton’s chal­lenge will be less to de­fend that record than to tran­scend it.

On so­cial is­sues such as gay mar­riage, Hil­lary Clin­ton has al­ready em­braced the Democrats’ more lib­eral con­sen­sus. But for all her fiery eco­nomic rhetoric, it’s not clear where she will land be­tween her hus­band’s busi­ness­friendly, deficit-con­scious cen­trism and her party’s ris­ing pop­ulist cur­rent. It seems in­evitable that Clin­ton, like Obama, will pro­pose more re­spon­si­bil­ity for Wash­ing­ton than her hus­band en­vi­sioned when he de­clared, “The era of big gov­ern­ment is over.”

Less cer­tain is whether she will chal­lenge her party to si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­form gov­ern­ment, as Bill Clin­ton did when he restruc­tured wel­fare and bal­anced the fed­eral bud­get. If she em­braces re­form (for in­stance, by stream­lin­ing en­ti­tle­ments for se­niors to fund in­vest­ments in kids), she risks an­tag­o­niz­ing the left; if she doesn’t, she risks help­ing the Repub­li­cans tag her as a re­turn to un­con­trolled big-gov­ern­ment lib­er­al­ism.

Like Bush, Clin­ton has to con­vince Amer­i­cans that she is of­fer­ing not just a dusted-off col­lec­tion of ideas stored in the fam­ily at­tic but an agenda at­tuned to the chal­lenges peo­ple face to­day.

Fa­mous fam­i­lies make al­most ev­ery­thing else about run­ning for pres­i­dent eas­ier. But prov­ing they un­der­stand the chal­lenges of con­tem­po­rary life may be tough­est for the can­di­dates named Clin­ton and Bush.

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