On Monday, Jeb Bush made the long-awaited announcement that he is a candidate for President. As a matter of style, we thought it deserved an “A.” Bush spoke from a Miami college gymnasium before a crowd described by The Washington Post as a “diverse tableau at a boisterous rally.” He appeared relaxed, energetic and optimistic, the sort of joyful campaigner that he had promised to be but that had not been clearly in evidence in recent months. Toward the end of his speech, Bush turned for several moments to fluent Spanish, demonstrating that he has both the determination and the capacity to seek the increasingly important Hispanic vote.
As a matter of substance, Bush’s announcement speech would probably have to be given an “incomplete.” He stressed his record of reform in Florida and promised to bring reform to Washington, but offered few specifics. Thus, he spoke of the stagnating economy and promised to produce a growth rate of 4% and 19 million jobs. But apart from generalized references to tax reform and elimination of unduly burdensome regulations, he gave little idea of how he would reach that ambitious goal. It remains to be seen how persuasive a case he will be able to make.
Bush addressed the two issues with which he has been most closely identified, and for which he has drawn most fire from conservatives: immigration and education. Bush not only did not shrink from his support for immigration reform, but seemed to go out of his way to emphasize it. The most memorable moment in his announcement came when immigration activists interrupted it, and Jeb responded by declaring, “The next president will pass meaningful immigration reform so that that will be solved – NOT by executive order.” On education, Bush did not expressly refer to Common Core, or to the controversy it has generated, but stressed school choice and, interestingly, emphasized the need to give priority to children with developmental challenges. He did not refer to the issue of climate change.
Matters of national security and foreign policy drew a critical reference to the Obama/Clinton/Kerry record, but Bush made only generalized promises to rebuild the military and alliances abroad. He did not refer to the Islamic State, Iran, Ukraine, NATO, Russia or China. Indeed, the only references to specific countries, Israel and Cuba, seemed to reflect more of a political point than a strategic one. Bush has addressed some foreign policy issues in individual speeches or statements. He has, for example, opposed the agreement with Iran, supported sending additional troops to Iraq in a non-combat role, and urged the strengthening of NATO. Still, a more comprehensive discussion will be required and doubtless will be forthcoming as the campaign progresses.
Bush’s brief foray into social issues has drawn little notice in the media. Bush challenged Hillary Clinton for having said that religious beliefs would have to yield to a progressive agenda. Indeed, Clinton had recently made such a surprising statement. In an April speech, she had not only called for improved access to “reproductive healthcare” (a reference generally understood to include abortion), but had also asserted that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” While we agree that access to abortion should be available to all, we doubt that disputing religious beliefs on that matter is either appropriate or feasible. We would add, however, that claims of religious belief need not always prevail. In his speech, Bush went on to complain of the “shabby treatment” given to the Little Sisters of the Poor by the Administration, an apparent reference to a case presently pending in the Supreme Court. In that case, the Little Sisters have claimed an intrusion on their religious beliefs merely by having to file a written objection to providing insurance coverage for contraceptives. In our view, however, the burden placed on the religious freedom by that administrative requirement is not a substantial one, and the treatment of the Little Sisters is hardly shabby.
We remain hopeful that social issues, including abortion and contraception, do not become a centerpiece of the Bush campaign. Although The Wall Street Journal tends to be conservative socially as well as economically, it offered this caution in commenting on the Bush announcement:
In 2016, the biggest divide in the GOP field isn’t between conservatives and moderates. The most important contrast concerns political strategy and pits the dividers against the uniters. Mr. Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and perhaps Ohio Governor John Kasich think the GOP has to expand its appeal with an inclusive message of growth, upward mobility and a softer edge on the culture. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum believe the path to the nomination and victory in 2016 is to polarize the national debate around immigration and cultural issues…. Conservatives will do better if they seek to expand the GOP and make a case for unifying the country.
For our part, we cannot think of Rand Paul as a unifying figure in any context, but otherwise believe that the Journal’s admonition is a sound one. And we hope that Bush will live up to his early promise of seeking a broad and unifying approach.
Bush’s announcement came one day after Hillary Clinton’s first major campaign speech. While Clinton had announced her candidacy some time ago, she had done so in a peculiarly low key fashion, in a video rather than before a live audience. And since that time she has remained largely out of sight of the media. Her event on Sunday therefore, seemed to be something of a “’do-over.” It was held on Roosevelt Island in New York City in a setting that, as some observers noted, was designed to make the attending crowd appear larger than it was. In the relentless way of the media, CNN cut to a “Hillary Watch” event in Iowa where half dozen supporters appeared a bit lonely as they watched the proceedings on television. Although Clinton’s speech was reasonably well delivered, and had a couple of welcome touches of humor, it seemed to us, on the whole, to have what Peggy Noonan would later describe as a “rote quality” to it.
The content of Clinton’s speech had three essential ingredients: routine attacks on Republicans as being responsible for all of the country’s ills, a recital of her own background and career, and a laundry list of “progressive” proposals. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the speech was its complete failure to say anything substantive about foreign policy, This seemed particularly odd for a candidate for President whose most recent, and probably most notable, credential is having served as Secretary of State for four years. Another conspicuous absence was any reference to the battle on the trade bills proposed by President Obama and supported by most Republicans, but defeated by House Democrats. Although Clinton ignored the subject of trade in her speech, she did take it up later the same day—in comments that were more newsworthy than anything in her speech.
Clinton’s list of proposals gave her speech a feel of greater specificity than, say, Bush’s announcement speech. But she gave little idea of how they would be paid for or otherwise implemented. It almost seemed as if her message had been drafted by a cousin of the speechwriter that Joe Califano liked to describe:
A long-suffering speechwriter promised one last address for his ungrateful boss. The first page of the speech says “Some say we can’t save the cities, improve the military and balance the budget. I say we can and I’m going to tell you how right now. Some say you can’t have environmental protection and economic growth—I say you can and I’m going to tell you how right now. The politician flips to the second page of the speech which merely says: “OK, Now you’re on your own.” (Quoted in Richard Schlesinger, The White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters)
Clinton was careful to omit “I’m going to tell you how right now,” but that debt will come due in the coming months. It seems inevitable that higher taxes are on the way and not merely for the hedge-fund managers Clinton singled out.
On foreign policy, Clinton’s remarks consisted principally of a brief reminiscence: “I’ve stood up to adversaries like Putin and reinforced allies like Israel. I was in the Situation Room on the day we got bin Laden.” Just what Clinton was referring to with respect to Putin and Israel was not clear. In the case of Putin and Russia, the image that most may remember is her ill-conceived presentation of a “reset” button to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. As for the capture of bin Laden, her role appears to have been similar to that of Zelig or perhaps Forrest Gump. Turning to the current scene, Clinton blandly noted the need “to meet traditional threats from countries like Russia, North Korea, and Iran — and to deal with the rise of new powers like China.” However, she gave no suggestion of what she might have in mind on those fronts and made no mention of the proposed Iran agreement, or of the Islamic State or of the plight of Ukraine.
With respect to the embattled trade agreements, Clinton attempted on Sunday afternoon to make up for ignoring them in her speech. In our view, the attempt was unsuccessful. She asserted that the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, still in negotiation, would have to be improved in some unspecified respects, but seemingly ignored the immediate issue: passage of the Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) and the fast-track authority provided by the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). Although taking no express position on those bills, she saluted Nancy Pelosi, who had opposed them. In so doing, Clinton joined the opposition without admitting it and has made it difficult, and very likely impossible to salvage the TAA and TPA. Moreover, she may well have doomed the underlying agreement—with or without the benefit of whatever improvements she might have had in mind. What Clinton surely understood, but chose to ignore, is the very reason for fast-track authority: that without it, other nations will not conduct serious negotiations knowing that the fruits of the process would be picked over by Congress and subjected to attempts at renegotiation. That reality has been understood and accepted by Republican and Democratic administrations alike and, until Sunday afternoon, Clinton herself.
Clinton’s Sunday afternoon performance was given an unsparing but accurate description by Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post. Marcus is a reliable liberal who in the same column gushed that Clinton’s speech had been “world class” (an assessment we obviously do not share). Nevertheless, she made no effort to conceal her dismay at Clinton’s subsequent pirouetting on trade:
Obama, Clinton said, “should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi, who have expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers, to make sure we get the best, strongest deal possible. And if we don’t get it, there should be no deal.”
How can this be understood as anything other than backing Pelosi’s strategy of killing fast-track? How can this be squared with Clinton’s previous description of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as setting a “gold standard in trade agreements”?
How can we have confidence that Clinton will stand up for what she believes in when that happens to conflict with her party’s base and the political dictates of the moment?
How indeed? The trade issue may be too complex to register deeply with much of the public. For those who do follow the issue, however, Clinton’s clumsy waffle can only underscore the increasing doubts as to her trustworthiness.