In an age of plutocracy, what could be more fitting than a dynastic contest for the White House? If either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush becomes their party’s 2016 nominee, it would be the seventh out of the past 10 US presidential elections with a Clinton or a Bush on the ballot. Should both do so, it would be the second in which each name headed their party’s tickets. There is a good chance that is exactly what will happen. As wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, so too is political capital. What could be more appropriate?
The cynical view is not always the right one. The problem with plutocracy is that it is unmeritocratic. But in each case, Hillary and Jeb are by far their party’s most qualified candidates. Both deserve their nominations on merit. Each has, moreover, made at least as strong a case against the new age of inherited wealth as their peers. The last dynastic scion to reach the White House was Franklin Roosevelt. He was also its most progressive. Of the two, Hillary, whose memoir, Hard Choices, was released yesterday, is by far the most likely. So strong are her credentials that almost no one of note is touting their rivalry. One or two, such as Joe Biden, the Vice-President, and Martin O’Malley, the little-known Governor of Maryland, may still throw their hat into the ring. Hillary would have both for breakfast and come back for seconds. Others, such as Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, and Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago, will wisely sit out 2016.
It is of course possible that a Barack Obama-type figure could emerge from nowhere to frustrate Hillary again. However, lightning rarely strikes the same place twice. Besides, now that America has broken the colour barrier, attention will more naturally turn to the glass ceiling — the one that Hillary so nearly cracked in 2008. The electorate will also be more mindful of Hillary’s miles on the clock — eight years as a First Lady, eight more as a senator and four as secretary of state. In 2008, hope triumphed over experience. In 2016, experience is likely to be the most prized quality. There is no contemporary US politician who can match Hillary on that.
Jeb Bush’s task would be far harder. In contrast to the Democrats, the Republican field is already crowded. Rising stars such as Rand Paul, the libertarian Senator from Kentucky, Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, and Ted Cruz, the pugilistic Senator from Texas, have all but declared their candidacies. The party has moved considerably to the right since the last Bush, George W., won the crown in 2000. Today, Jeb’s older brother is seen as having caved in to Washington’s big spending ways. There is also declining appetite among Republicans for the muscular foreign policy he embodied. Meanwhile, George H. W. Bush, the family’s paterfamilias, gave birth to the new Republican right when he broke his pledge on “no new taxes”. Conservative activists see the Bush name as synonymous with tax and spend. Capturing the Republican nomination will be quite a hill for Jeb to climb.
Yet, it looks less arduous with each month. The opening for a moderate Republican fell vacant when the rise of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Governor, came to a halt over the traffic jam fix earlier this year. Moreover, the Republican establishment has recently scored big reversals against the Tea Party: The appetite to pick a winner grows with each defeat. Jeb’s softness for illegal immigration — “an act of love” was how he described it — may infuriate the Republican grass roots. But its pragmatic wing knows he could win back the Hispanic vote, which is the fastest rising in the US. Not only does he speak fluent Spanish, he is married to a Mexican. Contrast that with Cruz, who believes illegal immigrants should be locked up. Much the same plays out with education: Jeb has acquired stellar reform credentials from when he was governor of Florida. The US electorate shares his enthusiasm for the national Common Core curriculum. The Tea Party calls it “Obamacore”.
If Hillary’s challenge is to distance herself from Obama without appearing to, Jeb must do the same with his older brother. It will not be easy, but both are going about it efficiently. Hillary’s book is full of examples of talking tough to foreign leaders — she was to the right of Obama on virtually every issue — including Syria, Afghanistan and Israel. And Jeb’s erudite reading habits keep finding their way into the newspapers. He is to the left of his party on most big questions.
Both face other obstacles. Hillary must fend off jokes about the “Golden Girls” (she will be 69 at the next election). At 63, Jeb will be no spring chicken either. But therein lies their strengths. In a world of bewildering change, Hillary and Jeb both radiate competence. Each also talks passionately about the declining US middle class. “The American dream is slowly being replaced by something economists call ‘stickiness at both ends’,” Jeb said recently. “Those born wealthy will stay there in many cases. And those born poor will do the same.” The words could just as easily have been Hillary’s.
Counter-intuitive though it seems, a battle of the dynasties would be America’s best shot at a debate that focused on what is on most voters’ minds. It is by no means obvious why the plutocrats should welcome it.
— Financial Times