On Friday, Hillary Clinton spoke at the New America Foundation’s “Big Ideas” conference (disclosure: I’m a New America senior fellow). Her basic theme was familiar—the American dream of upward mobility is in peril—though she did offer a couple of intriguing twists. She personified the problem by discussing an imaginary single mother struggling to work, study, and care for her children. That’s a sign of how far public discourse has moved since the 1990s, when demonizing unwed mothers was all the rage. In another mildly edgy move, Clinton noted that “Canadian middle-class incomes are now higher than in the United States. They are working fewer hours for more pay than Americans are, enjoying a stronger safety net, living longer on average, and facing less income inequality.” How long until Republicans accuse her of considering the United States inferior to our northern neighbor?
But the most important takeaway from Hillary’s speech was that she’s aching to run against Jeb Bush. Clinton is not a great inspirational speaker. She’s at her best arguing a case. And the most effective part of her speech Friday was her case for why Clinton-administration policies—an expanded earned-income tax credit, a higher minimum wage, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program—helped poor and middle-class Americans get ahead, while the Bush administration policies that followed—tax breaks for the rich, unfunded wars—made their struggles harder.
If Republicans are smart, they’ll do everything in their power to avoid this debate. First, because they want to portray Hillary as running for Barack Obama’s third term, not her husband’s, since the Obama legacy is trickier to defend. Second, because the 2016 GOP nominee needs to embody change, which is hard to do when you’re depicted as George W. Bush. Third, because Bill Clinton is about 20 points more popular than Bush, and that’s highly unlikely to change over the next two years.
The one Republican presidential candidate who can’t avoid this debate is Jeb, a man who is known to the vast majority of Americans only as George W. Bush’s brother. Running him in 2016 is like nominating a close relative of Jefferson Davis as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 1872 or nominating a prominent member of Herbert Hoover’s cabinet to represent the GOP in 1948: It dredges up a past the party desperately needs to transcend.
The fact that Republican elites are so excited about a Jeb candidacy suggests that they don’t understand how large a shadow George W. Bush still casts over their party. Inside the GOP establishment, the Bushes represent responsible conservatism. But for many other Americans—especially Millennials—they represent economic meltdown and unwinnable war.
When Bill Clinton ran in 1992, he tried mightily to convince Americans that the negative stereotypes about Democrats left over from Jimmy Carter’s presidency did not apply to him. That’s what Republicans need in 2016—a candidate who scrambles Americans’ stereotypes about the GOP by doing things George W. Bush never would. Right now, for all his flaws, Rand Paul is the only contender really trying.
For Jeb Bush, it’s virtually impossible. You can’t easily Sister Souljah your own brother. And if you can’t, as Hillary Clinton’s New America speech showed, you’re walking right into the debate she wants to have.