Clin­ton, Bush set the wonk bar high for them­selves

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Jeb Bush laid out am­bi­tious agen­das in their an­nounce­ment speeches over the past eight days. If they are as good as their word, the com­ing months of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign could be re­mem­bered for some­thing un­usual: a sum­mer of sub­stance.

Though of dif­fer­ent par­ties and dif­fer­ent philoso­phies, Clin­ton and Bush cer­tainly share one thing in com­mon: They are un­abashed pol­icy wonks. At Clin­ton head­quar­ters, pol­icy meet­ings with the can­di­date are blocked out in hours, not min­utes. Bush, asked the other day to ex­plain how he would achieve one of his big goals, re­sponded, “How much time you got?”

The two can­di­dates ob­vi­ously have spe­cific vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties un­re­lated to ques­tions about their pol­icy agen­das. For Clin­ton it is the ques­tions about hon­esty, trust­wor­thi­ness and per­sonal ac­ces­si­bil­ity. For Bush, it is the re­sis­tance to his can­di­dacy that comes with his fam­ily name and with per­cep­tions that his con­ser­vatism is too squishy for some in his party. But both can­di­dates say they are de­ter­mined to make their cam­paigns about ideas and the poli­cies to back them up.

Their mu­tual in­ter­est in the de­tails of pol­icy comes from their long ex­pe­ri­ence in the public realm. Clin­ton has been grap­pling with do­mes­tic pol­icy prob­lems ever since she joined the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund as a young lawyer. Bush long has been known as the more pol­icy-ori­ented brother in the fam­ily busi­ness of elec­tive pol­i­tics, a rep­u­ta­tion he earned be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter his time as gover­nor of Florida.

But if the two are steeped in pol­icy, they have left them­selves siz­able chal­lenges as pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Clin­ton’s is to flesh out her pledge to make in­come in­equal­ity— the gap be­tween the wealth­i­est and the rest of so­ci­ety — the cen­tral is­sue of her can­di­dacy. Bush’s is to demon­strate that he has some­thing fresh to back up his goal of re­turn­ing the U.S. econ­omy to sus­tain­able 4 per­cent an­nual growth rates.

The speech Clin­ton de­liv­ered at the Franklin D. Roo­sevelt Four Free­doms Park on New York’s Roo­sevelt Is­land on June 13 of­fered sweep­ing rhetoric about the state of an econ­omy that she said should work for all and not just the most priv­i­leged.

In tone, it was at least mildly pop­ulist. That was ev­i­dence of her con­clu­sion that the Demo­cratic Party’s most im­por­tant con­stituen­cies are look­ing for some­thing closer to the Euro­pean So­cial Demo­crat views of Sen. Bernie San­ders (IVt.) than the New Demo­crat ideas that helped elect her hus­band, Bill Clin­ton, to the pres­i­dency a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

As she drilled down, how­ever, the speech be­came a more fa­mil­iar Clin­tonesque ap­proach to do­mes­tic and eco­nomic pol­icy: a long string of pol­icy pro­grams or am­bi­tions, many of them pro­posed be­fore. They rep­re­sent a gen­eral con­tin­u­a­tion of the ap­proach fol­lowed by Pres­i­dent Obama rather than any dra­matic break with main­stream, con­ven­tional or­tho­doxy of her party.

The list of ideas in­cluded rais­ing the min­i­mum wage; of­fer­ing paid fam­ily leave for new par­ents and more flex­i­ble work sched­ules; giv­ing small busi­nesses and oth­ers tax breaks to en­cour­age long-term in­vest­ment rather than short­term profit; en­cour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ment of al­ter­na­tive energy sources and dis­cour­ag­ing the use of fos­sil fu­els; cre­at­ing an in­fra­struc­ture bank for mat­ters in­clud­ing highways and broad­band; pro­vid­ing uni­ver­sal preschool and more ac­cess to high-qual­ity child care; mak­ing col­lege more af­ford­able; giv­ing adults in­cen­tives for life­long learn­ing; of­fer­ing illegal im­mi­grants a path to cit­i­zen­ship.

By this reck­on­ing, Clin­ton is not a be­liever in a big-bang ap­proach to the prob­lems she out­lined. In­stead, she fa­vors smaller steps and an ar­ray of pro­grams, rem­i­nis­cent of the State of the Union ad­dresses dur­ing her hus­band’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

She said in her launch speech that growth and fair­ness were two goals of her eco­nomic pol­icy, though she nei­ther es­tab­lished tar­gets for growth nor sig­naled the de­gree to which a third Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion would pur­sue poli­cies of re­dis­tri­bu­tion.

Her speech did not broach rais­ing taxes on the wealth­i­est Amer­i­cans, a no­table omis­sion from a Demo­cratic can­di­date try­ing to strike a pop­ulist tone. Clin­ton cam­paign spokesman Brian Fal­lon said in a mes­sage that she will de­liver a fuller speech later this year call­ing for re­vis­ing the tax code and “en­sur­ing the wealth­i­est Amer­i­cans pay their fair share.”

In con­trast, Bush es­tab­lished an am­bi­tious and dif­fi­cult-toachieve growth tar­get in his speech. “There is not a rea­son in the world why we can­not grow at a rate of 4 per­cent a year,” he said.

Not a rea­son, ex­cept that no re­cent pres­i­dent has man­aged to hit that tar­get other than for oc­ca­sional quar­ters. Not Ron­ald Rea­gan dur­ing his Morn­ing in Amer­ica years. Not Bill Clin­ton dur­ing a time when the econ­omy cre­ated more jobs than the 19 mil­lion that Bush said his poli­cies would de­liver. Not his fa­ther, Ge­orge H.W. Bush, nor his brother Ge­orge W. Bush, nor Pres­i­dent Obama— each of whom gov­erned dur­ing times of eco­nomic down­turns.

Bush’s “how much time you got” came in re­sponse to a ques­tion about whether he has new poli­cies to reach sus­tain­able 4 per­cent growth. He cited ac­tions, in­clud­ing par­ing away reg­u­la­tions that he said be­gan build­ing up be­fore Obama took of­fice, re­form­ing a tax code that has not been re­formed since 1986, push­ing for more de­vel­op­ment of tra­di­tional energy re­sources, tack­ling “fis­cal struc­tural prob­lems” and re­form­ing immigration “to re­build the de­mo­graphic pyra­mid” in the coun­try. He also men­tioned ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing to pro­duce a more skilled work­force.

That is an agenda for per­haps two terms. Bush was asked how quickly he could get all this done. “All this stuff?” he re­sponded. “I’m think­ing about how I’m go­ing to do in the Iowa cau­cuses right now.”

He added: “But pol­i­tics should be as much about as­pi­ra­tional goals and about back­ing it up with sub­stance and then ex­plain­ing how you have the lead­er­ship skills to make it so than just about how bad things are and how bad the other guy is. And that’s what this is.”

That leaves Bush with much left to do. He has to flesh out his as­pi­ra­tional goals with cred­i­ble and achiev­able ini­tia­tives. He also needs to ex­plain how he would square his ad­vo­cacy for tak­ing care of those most in need in the con­text of the Repub­li­can con­gres­sional bud­get blue­print of House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that would squeeze do­mes­tic spend­ing.

But Clin­ton’s task isn’t much eas­ier. She must try to sat­isfy the pro­gres­sive wing of her party that is hun­ger­ing for hard­eredged poli­cies to match the rhetoric of pop­ulist anger, which if the sub­ject of trade is any ev­i­dence, she is re­luc­tant to do. She also must bal­ance ad­vo­cacy of an agenda that calls for con­sid­er­able gov­ern­ment ac­tivism with public skep­ti­cism about gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to de­liver.

Past cam­paigns have seen other can­di­dates with an un­abashed in­ter­est in and knowl­edge of public pol­icy, but rarely have there been two so ob­vi­ously steeped in the de­tails as Bush and Clin­ton. That presages what could be a com­pelling de­bate, even at long dis­tance for the time be­ing. But only if both step up to the chal­lenge they’ve set out for them­selves.

Each wants to make his or her cam­paign about ideas and the poli­cies to back them up.

DREW ANGERER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

DemocratHil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Repub­li­can Jeb Bush may have very dif­fer­ent agen­das, but those agen­das are sim­i­lar in that both are pol­icy-driven and am­bi­tious. And in each case, im­ple­ment­ing them would be quite a chal­lenge.

STEPHEN LAM/REUTERS

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