Another Bush? Another Clinton?
In reporting on the 2016 presidential campaign, much of the media will likely echo the theme that Barbara Bush set forth during a C-SPAN interview in January, in which the former first lady said that — while she believed that her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was “the best qualified person to run for president ” — Americans should widen the pool of applicants.
“I think this is a great American country, great country, and if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly,” she said.
Many Americans would seem to agree.
There is even a new online petition that was launched this week urging Americans to take a stand against “hereditary family rule.” The organizer is a liberal online activism group called RootsAction.org, which notes that in seven presidential elections in a row, spanning from 1980 to 2004, there was a “Bush” or a “Clinton” on the presidential ticket of a major party.
Organizers are worried that this trend is likely to start up again in 2016.
You’ll hear this sentiment a lot over the next year or so — that Jeb’s biggest problem is “Bush fatigue” and that electing Hillary Clinton means reliving “the Clinton years.” Supposedly, the biggest liability for these potential candidates is the burden of their last names.
That’s ridiculous. For these two likely presidential hopefuls, their names are the least of their worries.
Here are the five more formidable obstacles that could keep Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush away from the White House:
— The Elevator Pitch. Neither Hillary nor Jeb seems capable of explaining, clearly and succinctly, why she or he wants to be president. I don’t think they could do it if they had all day, let alone, as the saying goes, in the time it takes to complete an elevator ride. The same problem plagued Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, in 1980, and it crippled his insurrectionary bid against the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. In the case of Hillary and Jeb, the answer can’t simply be: “Well, this is a family tradition. And it’s my turn.” We need to know why they want to be president, and why the country would be better off if they reached that goal.
— The “EQ” Factor. Hillary is no Bill Clinton, and Jeb is no George W. Bush. Both the 42nd president and the 43rd had a special gift of being able to relate to voters. They were likable, and both genuinely seemed to enjoy being around people. They were polarizing figures, but the half of America that liked them did so intensely. They connected emotionally with voters by sharing stories, memories and values. You either have that ability, or you don’t. Neither Hillary nor Jeb has it. Either one would make a great president. But presidents are not appointed. They’re elected. Americans elect people to whom they can relate. And we’ll never know if we relate to you, if you don’t open up.
–The Happy Warrior. Americans want candidates who are sunny, optimistic and uplifting. Whether he is talking about immigration or economic development, Jeb Bush likes to use the word: “aspirational.” He understands that Americans want a president who leads them not just forward, but also up. But he doesn’t practice what he preaches. He rarely looks happy when talking about running for president. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, who seems weary when the subject comes up, as if she has been carrying around for the last decade the enormous weight of breaking what her supporters like to call the “ultimate glass ceiling.” These two don’t look “aspirational.” They look anguished.
— The Fire. Running for president is a long and brutal journey and the folks who pull it off are the ones with a burning intensity inside of them. Excitement and confidence are contagious, and people respond to candidates who speak from the heart and have an emotional stake in the issues. Many Democrats are responding to the passion of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and they hope she runs for president. Many Republicans get excited by the likes of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, or Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The most valuable weapon a candidate has isn’t charisma, or experience, or a war chest. It’s passion. If you don’t have it, don’t bother running. It’s not clear that Hillary and Jeb have it.
— The Chore of Reconciliation. Getting elected president is about getting your base to fall in line even if they haven’t fallen in love. For Hillary, the challenge is bringing together the “Warren-istas” who like to go to war with the rich and the Wall Street business interests that get skittish when Democrats sing populist anthems. For Jeb, the heavy lift is uniting Tea Party radicals who have declared war against the GOP establishment with moderate voices that want a more inclusive party. It’s been said that you can’t serve two masters. But, as Hillary and Jeb may be about to learn, it’s also true that you can’t advance two narratives — especially when they are at odds.
The 2016 election will not be about last names. It’ll be about what elections are usually about: the candidates who are running and what kind of people they are. You can’t spin that, or cover it up. It comes out in the end. And it goes a long way toward deciding who gets to the White House and who goes home empty-handed.