In the month and half since Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for President, it has become evident that she will not make the same mistakes as she did in 2008. Ms. Clinton begins this race as a much stronger frontrunner than eight years ago, but she has also been a better candidate, tacking to the left as necessary, articulating a stronger raison d’être for her candidacy and avoiding getting dragged down by scandals. The scandals still are out there; and Ms. Clinton’s unwillingness to answer questions from the media with any frequency has infuriated many beat reporters, but it remains apparent that neither Bernie Sanders, nor any other Democrat, will Obama her in 2016.
The candidate who is most in danger of falling into the same mistakes that Ms. Clinton did in 2008 is Jeb Bush, who once seemed extremely well positioned to win, or even run away with, the Republican presidential nomination. That has changed. The primary rationale for Mr. Bush’s candidacy has been his name recognition and the belief that he can win, much as was the case with Ms. Clinton eight years ago. However, that alone is not enough for a non-incumbent to win a nomination.
Voters, and the press corps, demand that candidates explain why they are running for the highest office in the land
Recently, Mr. Bush has stumbled into controversy for two very different sets of remarks. First, two weeks ago, he told Fox News that knowing what he knows now, he still would have supported the Iraq war. The former Florida Governor has since tried to clarify his answer to say essentially that he interpreted the question to mean given the information at the time he would have have supported the war. This is a very different question to which Mr. Bush’s initial response would have made a lot more sense. The confusion around Mr. Bush’s statement on Iraq, followed by days of trying to explain what he actually meant, have proved damaging.
Last week, Mr. Bush made a very significant comment about climate change, asserting that, “For the people to say the science is decided on this is really arrogant, to be honest with you. It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t have a conversation about it, even.” But if recognizing the human role in climate change is intellectually arrogant, than so is recognizing the role water plays in growing crops. In fairness, Mr. Bush also included in his comments about science and climate that, “just generally I think as conservatives we should embrace innovation, embrace technology, embrace science … Sometimes I sense that we pull back from the embrace of these things. We shouldn’t.” Mr. Bush’s initial response indicates that he, like most of his fellow GOP challengers will defer to the far-right of his party on the climate change, but his follow up suggests he is not quite comfortable with that position and concerned about being lumped in with the anti-science Republicans on his party’s far right. This is good news for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, but markedly less so for Mr. Bush.
Each of these episodes, taken individually, can be explained or rationalized. Together, however, they paint a picture of Mr. Bush as uncertain, suggesting that he has yet to find his footing as a candidate. He appears caught between loyalty to his brother and crafting a foreign policy that recognizes Bush 43’s many mistakes. Similarly, he seems to be taking a socially conservative position on climate change on one hand, while pledging his support for science on the other.
Mr. Bush has positioned himself as the electable candidate, a more moderate, or at least more mature, voice within the Republican Party, and his own man not beholden to the mistakes of his brother or the excessive caution of his father. That was an appealing position and strategy, but in recent weeks he has demonstrated that it will be difficult for him to maintain that. His recent comments indicate that, perhaps, he is running to avenge his brother; or maybe to appeal to populist resentment against intellectual scientists and liberals-or maybe not. If Governor Bush continues to mishandle these kinds of questions, the larger question of why he is running will be hard to avoid.
Voters, and the press corps, demand that candidates explain why they are running for the highest office in the land. Ted Kennedy’s stumbling inability to provide that rationale for his candidacy during a nationally televised interview when he was preparing to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, helped sink his campaign that year. A continued lack of clarity regarding this question on the part of Mr. Bush could have a similar impact for the man who was not that long ago the clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.