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Back to the future: Clinton vs. Bush in 2016?

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By Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman
For POLITICO.com

BOSTON — American politics may be headed back to the future.

Four years after the country elected a 40-something African-American newcomer named Barack to the presidency, a more familiar political order is poised to reassert itself: the House of Clinton representing Democrats and the House of Bush atop the GOP.

The restoration of either is no sure thing, but what’s certain is that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush loom the largest over their respective parties as the long road toward 2016 begins. Any other would-be presidential candidate will first take a long look toward Chappaqua and Miami before moving forward.

Clinton, particularly, freezes her party’s 2016 nomination process starting at this moment. After barely falling short in 2008 and earning high marks and soaring approval ratings in four years as America’s top diplomat, she unambiguously has the strongest claim on being the next Democratic standard-bearer. If, and it is a big unknown, she wants another shot at the presidency.

Bush, were he to run, most likely wouldn’t clear the field in the way Clinton could. But his gravitas, fundraising capability, Florida roots and entree to Hispanics makes him the most formidable Republican on a sparkling roster of potential 2016 contenders.

The 2012 contest was notable for being the first presidential campaign since 1976 that didn’t feature a member of one of America’s most famous political families. And it looks like it might be only a brief break from tradition.

That the same two families who dominated American politics for the previous decades may return to the fore after the Obama interregnum would be fitting in a country that purports to disregard dynasties but actually builds, enables and obsesses over its ruling clans.

“We love our brands — they offer certainty in a world spinning apart,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who is friends with Bush and believes he would be a strong candidate. “The political equivalent of a brand is the dynasty, the Bushes or Clintons. And even if Coke produces New Coke, or Ford, an Edsel, now and then…. we remain loyal. We know and value what the brand stands for … otherwise, we wouldn’t want it rehabilitated.”

But while there are the obvious questions that hang over both Clinton and Bush — is she up for a second run after a grueling four years and is he willing to confront his family’s ghosts — their candidacies would also say much about the direction each party wants to take.

In the post-Obama era, will Democrats return to a familiar moderate Democratic brand, internationalist and center-left at home, or will they seek a return to a purer strain of populism embodied by Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)? And does the Republican old guard still have the ability to tap the GOP’s nominees in the wake of consecutive failed center-right nominees and with an abundance of younger conservatives waiting in the wings?

What’s more, the Obama victory was forged through a new, and liberal, coalition that is not only a path forward for another Democrat as an electoral model but would potentially push Clinton further to the left in a primary. The 44th president, who has defied old and new Democrat characterization, left little doubt about the new composition of the party in his second national win.

Both Clinton and Bush have a cadre of backers ready to sign up, many of which were already casually discussing 2016 before votes were tallied on Tuesday.

“There are a legion of people on both sides who are invested in them — fundraisers, operatives and activists,” noted well-wired Democratic strategist Michael Feldman.

Between Clinton and Bush, Clinton would have the stronger early advantage.

She would “suck the air out of the room,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a longtime booster of both Clintons, including during the 2008 primaries.

He added it’s a “zero sum game because so much can happen in four years,” and that it’s possible a lesser-known star could emerge, but that the large imprint the Clintons leave on the party remains.

“I do think the nomination is Hillary’s for the taking,” said a veteran Democratic strategist, adding, “Hillary’s the most popular political figure in the country.”

Friends of the Clintons decline to discuss on the record any of the looming speculation about whether she will launch a second White House campaign. But they openly acknowledge, if privately, that she will keep the Democratic race at a standstill for the next few years while political insiders speculate about her plans.

Yet Clinton is about to reenter a world she’s largely left behind for the last four years — one in which every movement made by the Clintons has been measured and captured by photographers and reporters. Pictures of Hillary dancing in nightclubs overseas would have been unimaginable while she was serving in the Senate and tending to her certain future presidential run.

For instance, both Clintons paid a low-key visit to their polling site in their Westchester County precinct on election night. No photographers snapped up their pictures. That would change if she were to return to civilian life.

Hillary’s husband, on the other hand, has made the most of his surrogacy for Obama, spurring speculation that he wanted to ensure the favor was repaid four years from now.

"I think he had the time of his life," said James Carville, the longtime Clinton-hand-turned-pundit, adding that Obama "doesn't strike me as somebody that likes making sausage. He certainly likes to eat it."

Clinton did events or calls for 52 down-ballot candidates this cycle, many of whom won on Tuesday.

"I ran as a Bill Clinton Democrat against a tea party Republican and that just was a shorthand for people of balanced budgets and economic growth," said Rep.-elect Sean Patrick Maloney, a former Clinton administration official who won a House seat in Westchester, N.Y. this week, and for whom the former president campaigned.

Those are chits for a Clinton future, but also a reminder of how much the former president enjoys the stage and that he fills a role of party-building in which Obama has shown little interest. The current president campaigned for very few candidates this cycle, in part because of his own race and because some of the candidates didn't want him. But regardless, the president has made clear in the past that he has no burning desire to elect a farm team of Obamans.

Rumors floated on Wednesday about former President Clinton possibly being brought in to help with fiscal cliff discussions — a notion that seemed more tailored to paying respect to the ex-president than something rooted in reality. What's likelier is that he returns to his foundation, that his wife returns home after serving as secretary of state and that together they turn the enterprise into an even more successful nonprofit venture.

Hillary will write a book, as she did years ago, and then do press accompanying it, and then survey the landscape. Her husband, in the meantime, will have a range of options.

"People call him for advice," Carville said. "God knows how many requests he gets … he's in a position to pick and choose whatever he wants to do he can do."

On the other side is Jeb Bush, who was the coveted candidate of Republican elites and donors at various points of the cycle.

After a blunt summer assessment of his party’s problems with Hispanic voters and a critique of the GOP’s trend toward the dogmatic at a Bloomberg View event in Manhattan earned him rebukes from Republicans, Bush campaigned with vigor for Mitt Romney.

But if John McCain’s imprint on the party was the advent of Sarah Palin, Romney’s remains totally unclear — beyond a list of things he did not do, such as appeal to Hispanic voters. This vulnerability has prompted chatter among some establishment types that Bush, fluent in Spanish and married to a Mexican-American, is the obvious answer for 2016.

“If we are going to bring the Republican Party back to its glory, it is going to take a leader who understands the diversity and demographics of this country and is willing to show the leadership to stand up to the extremes of the party,” said Texas-based bundler Fred Zeidman, one of his party’s major donors, without referring specifically to Bush.

But following a traumatic White House loss and the restoration of a firm Democratic Senate majority, other Republicans are at the very least hesitant about a coronation of a man whose brother has inflicted significant political damage on the GOP in recent years. Conservatives, especially, are uneasy about running another Bush.

“There was a little Bush on the ticket last night,” said one top Washington Republican, referring to exit polls showing that a majority of Americans still blame George W. Bush for the state of the economy. Romney was loath to mention Bush in the 2012 race, and basically ran away from his policies.

Castellanos said he thinks Bush would “be very attractive if he wants it. You know, there are gonna be some questions about Jeb, one of which is he’s got a little Chris Christie in him too; he kind of does things his way. Does he run or does [Marco] Rubio support him or does a Rubio run [and Jeb support him] … does he sit on a throne or is he a power behind a lot of thrones? [But] right now he is kind of the king in waiting, the prince in waiting for the Republican Party.”

GOP fundraiser and 1992 George H.W. Bush campaign manager Fred Malek disagreed.

“It’s not his for the asking,” Malek said. “It’s nobody’s for the asking. He was a great governor. He’s quite appealing to a broad base of the country including Hispanics. He’s got a superb record of accomplishments and I think he’d be an excellent (candidate).”

“It’s awfully early to even think about it,” he said.

Indeed, four years is a long time in the Twitter era. Obama is a testament to how quickly political assumptions can change.

Democratic strategist Matt Bennett allowed that “the dynasties are the most compelling storyline for 2016” but called the cable news ideal of a Bush-Clinton showdown “conceivable but not likely.”

Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman are reporters for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.


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