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)

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.