It’s easy to forget how dumb we’ve been.
Seventeen months ago, Jeb Bush announced over Facebook that he would be starting a Leadership PAC to “facilitate conversations with citizens across America” about whether he would be a good president.
“Onward,” he signed the note.
Through Washington, shockwaves pounded. A Leadership PAC? A listening tour? Can he even be stopped?
There were similarly reverential pronouncements of inevitability when Hillary Clinton released a sunny YouTube video announcing her presidential plans. Like Jeb, she put in the time in the policy trenches. She earned it. And like Jeb, she literally spent decades meeting donors, building teams, growing trust with party officials, fostering loyalties—doing everything right. Jeb and Hillary headed into their parties’ respective primaries with godlike name ID’s and rapper money. And everyone freaked out; the parties, after all, would decide—so how could they not win?
In terms of public policy, of course, the two have vast disagreements—particularly on the issues of abortion and LGBT rights. But stylistically and biographically, the pair have eerie similarities—including their vulnerabilities. As a duo, they’ve given East Coast pundits ample opportunities to mortify themselves. Oversold and overestimated, the pair demonstrate just how meager is the appetite for centrist-leaning, dynastic optimists. Jeb’s defeat foreshadowed Clinton’s struggles. So the facts are hard to get around: Hillary is the Jeb of the left.
Before the primaries really got going, conventional wisdom (“wisdom”) held that the most salient similarities between Bush and Clinton were their access to cash and relation to former presidents. And Clinton’s eventual likely success will be due to her ability to be even Jebbier than Jeb—even more money, even more endorsements, even more intimate connections with even more power-brokering elites (they even share a few donors!). But power-brokering elites ain’t what they used to be.
The reality is, this is Mad Max: Presidential Election, and kind-hearted technocrats are adorably D.O.A. The betting markets all favor Clinton, but national polls suggest the race could be more competitive than just about anyone could have conceived of a month ago (an ABC News/Washington Post poll of registered voters conducted from May 16-May 19 gave him a teensy lead of 2 percentage points). That’s probably in part because Clinton and Bush share many of the same flaws: social awkwardness, boundless capacity for gaffeing, acute interest in issues that literally zero voters find interesting, and a singular ability to seem inauthentic even when they were just being themselves.
Take, for instance, the hot sauce situation. On April 18, Clinton told three black radio hosts that she carries hot sauce in her bag (just like Beyoncé!).
“I think hot sauce is good for you, in moderation,” she added helpfully.
The line drew prompt and unrelenting mockery. But it was also true; Clinton has long been open about her affinity for hot peppers and spicy food. But it’s Hillary, so sharing a basic, unsexy biographical facts is automatically hilarious.
Same with Jeb. The then-candidate included $75 guacamole bowls in his campaign store, boasting about his secret guacamole recipe. Pretty much everyone thought this was hysterical, and it precipitated what is, in my dumb opinion, the funniest tweet of all time. But it was also true! The former Florida governor speaks fluent Spanish, has close and longstanding ties to Hispanic communities throughout the Sunshine State, has an encyclopedic grasp of foreign policy issues regarding Central and South America and, yeah, likes guac. This wasn’t Donald Trump wielding a taco bowl; this was a guy trying to raise money for his campaign by selling his favorite kitchen tool. Too damn bad, Jeb. Too. Dam. Bad.
Clinton and Bush, of course, share far more than a total inability to be themselves without drawing choreographed sneers. For one, there’s their shared, basically religious faith that simple policy fixes can fix the country, and that explaining these policy fixes in intimate detail will excite voters.
On the campaign trail, for instance, Bush often bemoaned the practice of third-grade social promotion. Never mind that the president of the United States does not get to decide if the country’s third-graders get socially promoted; Bush spoke of it with the kind of fervid opprobrium that Trump reserves for Rosie O’Donnell, or ISIS.
Clinton has a similar joie de wonkery that delights Brookings Institute scholars, Vox.com pundits, and noone else. The Washington Post recently noted “Clinton’s confidence in two things. The status quo. And the federal bureaucracy.”
Post author David Fahrenthold added that her plan to make college affordable is… byzantine.
“She also wants to help students by extending a tax credit that has a history going back to the tenure of her famously wonky husband,” he wrote. “It can be worth up to $2,500. But only if students find their Form 1098-T, then fill out the relevant portions of Form 8863, then enter the amount from lines 8 and 19 of Form 8863 in lines 68 and 50 of their Form 1040. Just like that.”
It should surprise no one that she’s the same candidate whose energy plan includes additional federal funding for natural gas pipelines. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, leads millennials in sing-alongs.
Unlike Sanders’s crowds, Clinton’s supporters (Bush’s, too) aren’t super into chants. But if they were, they might like a call-and-response from an old comic strip about moderates that The Economist dug up: “What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!”
Maybe we should’ve seen this coming decades ago. When Bill Clinton became governor of Arkansas, many murmured that his wife would have been better suited for the gig.
“Some say the wrong Clinton is in the statehouse,” he said at a charity fundraiser, according to Vanity Fair, “and I wouldn’t disagree with them.”
In similar (or, well, identical) fashion, conservative thinkfluencers held that Jeb would have been far superior to George W. as president.
“For years conservatives have quietly spoken of how we elected ‘the wrong Bush’ in 2000,” wrote National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg a few months before Jeb rolled out his promising Facebook heads-up. “Jeb’s national reputation on the right was always higher than George’s, at least outside of Texas.”
With so many people telling them for so long that they were so awesome, it should come as no surprise that Bush and Clinton share the same sunny view of the status quo. Bush, for instance, loved to say that things were great and getting better.
“This is the greatest country in the world,” he said in a foreign policy speech he delivered in the run-up to announcing his candidacy, and months before Trump promised to re-great America. “We shouldn’t be as pessimistic as were are because we’re on the verge of the best time to be alive.”
Look, this might be correct, at least comparatively speaking. But when a growing number of Americans think they’re living in The Road, it isn’t super helpful. And it’s what Clinton is doing right now. Her top surrogate, her husband, loves to tout her pragmatism and how our country is in the perfect position “to rise again.” Clinton might as well have said Americans have the right to rise.
Jeb probably could have warned her about how all this would go—and given their friendship, maybe he did.