IN U.S. politics, the 2016 Presidential Election may well be a case of business as usual. In all but the 2012 electoral contest, every presidential nomination process since 1980 has featured a Bush or a Clinton running for President or Vice President.
The race in November 2016 is shaping up to be eerily similar to that of 1992, where a Clinton narrowly defeated a Bush to obtain the keys to the White House.
Given the historical precedent, it seems reasonable to ask why the carriers of the Bush and Clinton legacies: Jeb and Hillary respectively, both officially launched their campaigns this week, 16 months before polling day. The answer is as detailed as it is logistical.
Essentially, the two candidates are currently running in two different preliminary elections for each of their parties, with the winner of each party contesting the General Election race, which runs every four years. It is therefore possible, but improbable, that two candidates not named Bush or Clinton could contest the United States General Election.
As with Australia, the U.S. has two major parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. Put simply, in order for Clinton to win the ‘nomination’ to be the Democrats’ candidate at the General Election (for example), she first has to beat other candidates that contest the nomination from inside her own party. Each candidate for the Democrats then has to contest in a mini election in each of the fifty states, which are known as ‘primaries’.
Registered Party Members can vote in these Primaries. Democratic Party officials then allocate delegates based on the overall vote totals of each of the candidates. The person with the most delegates at the end of the party’s convention, usually held in June or July of an election year, officially becomes the Democrats’ nominee to contest the General Election. If this process seems complex, double that confusion, because the Republicans also undertake a near identical process to determine their candidate for the General Election as well.
Considering the lengthy process, it is no wonder some experts speculated that Clinton and Bush were frontrunners for their respective party’s nomination as soon as Obama was re-elected President and won the 2012 General election. The name recognition that comes with being part of a political dynasty can paradoxically be both help and hindrance. On one hand casual political observers know the positions that both Clinton and Bush have on particular issues and can prepare themselves to enter the polling booth accordingly. However, with historical knowledge comes a comprehensive understanding of each of the candidates’ and their family’s failures.
This is especially a disadvantage for Clinton, who has been a fixture in America’s political spotlight for nearly 25 uninterrupted years. First came her role as prospective, and then the actual, ‘First Lady’ of the United States (FLOTUS), as the wife of Bill Clinton, American President from 1993–2001. This was followed by a term as the United States Senator for New York from 2001–2009, allowing Clinton to springboard into her first campaign for President in 2008, which she lost to Obama in the primary. Almost immediately after his win Obama surprisingly appointed Clinton as Secretary of State, the top foreign policy official in the United States. This role, as with the rest of her career, was both extremely high profile and highly controversial.
Jeb Bush has another controversial legacy to contend with, that of his brother, George Walker Bush. Despite an historic two term Governorship of Florida, one of America’s most politically diverse states, the legacy of the last Republican President continues to dominate discussions surrounding Jeb’s chances of ascending to this position. Questions about whether Jeb will take an aggressive approach towards foreign policy like his brother, or if he is more likely to adopt the more measured tones of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, will dominate media speculation between now and election day.
It was unsurprising that when he launched his campaign this week, the younger Bush sought to define his campaign by projecting himself as an inclusive candidate, a legacy that the eldest Bush son could never lay claim to. This was achieved implicitly and explicitly. Jeb’s language was task orientated rather than divisive. In a key portion of the speech he remarked “Not a one of us deserves the job by right of resume, party, seniority, family, or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test, and it’s wide open — exactly as a contest for president should be.” Not coincidentally this quote also serves to address the criticism that the Bush’s’ fail to understand the core values of working class voters, and prefer instead concentrate on furthering their political legacy. Explicitly he reinforced this claim by compiling a video, which highlighted him supporting many diverse minority groups.
It also serves to differentiate Bush from other Republican candidates who are considered more conservative, such as his fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and wealthy neurosurgeon and author, Ben Carson. Jeb Bush stands out from this list of candidates because he is considered to be ‘moderate’ or closer to the centre of the political spectrum than other the other Republican combatants. However, this ‘moderate’ label is largely dependent upon subjective definitions of both the media and the candidates themselves.
While Bush has to fight out his party’s nomination against a growing list of contenders, Hilary Clinton has the opposite cause for concern. No one with any political substance wants to challenge Clinton for the nomination. One of the advantages that Obama had because of his grueling primary race in 2008 was that Hillary challenged him on almost every important issue before securing the nomination of the Democratic Party. Consequently, Obama was battle ready and full of responses for any criticisms that came his way.
Clinton does have challengers this time around, but none of any discernable quality. These include unpredictable Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffe, who all on first impression appear to be far too weak to provide a serious challenge to Clinton.
Without some serious tests in the primaries Democrats remain concerned that the factors that led to Clinton’s loss against Obama in 2008 will be unaddressed until the Republicans confront her. Like Jeb, Hillary must prove that she understands the concerns of lower and middle class voters, which she endeavoured to do in her launch speech.
There is a perception that she is also out of touch with these voters, which has not been helped by a series of revelations that have constantly emerged about The Clinton Foundation, which she has led with her husband and daughter.
However the Clintons live in a political reality where a new ‘scandal’ seems to emerged with reasonable frequency since early 1992. The true test for Hillary will be when or if a serious scandal emerges, or a former one reappears, and how her team responds to it. This may be the key to Hillary presenting the calm but focused demeanour that will help her become elected.
While it is almost certain that a Clinton and a Bush will be once again be ordained as their party’s nominee for the Presidency, many unanswered questions remain that the primary process may not be able to address. These are the intangibles that define Presidential legacies.
How will Hillary or Jeb respond to a severe national security crisis? Will they be able to examine the big picture implications of the decisions that they must make? Despite a comprehensive and exhaustive primary process, the American public won’t know the answers to these crucial questions until after January 20th, 2017, when the successful candidate takes the oath of office and becomes the 45th President of the United States of America.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Todd Winther is a PhD Candidate in Political Science in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.
Todd is a frequent contributor toThe Conversation. His thesis studies the relationship between leadership and internal party structure.