by Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes, The Hill
Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are dealing with the baggage of their political histories even before their 2016 campaigns officially begin.
For the former secretary of state, the new scrutiny of Clinton Foundation donors — especially foreign governments and wealthy non-U.S. citizens — is bringing back memories of Whitewater and the selling of the White House Lincoln Bedroom to political patrons.
Revelations about the Clinton Foundation’s donor list caused The New York Times to editorialize that someone needed “to reinstate the foundation’s ban against foreign contributors, who might have matters of concern to bring before a future Clinton administration.”
Jeb Bush’s baggage is comprised of the decisions made by his father and his older brother during their years in the White House, particularly President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Much attention was given to Jeb Bush’s speech this week in Chicago in which he paid due deference to his father and older brother’s achievements but added, “I am my own man.” In a question-and-answer session that immediately followed the speech, he also acknowledged that “there were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure.”
The focus on their histories, and that of their families, is enough to make the assumed frontrunners dwell on William Faulkner’s famous words, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Still, some observers argue that, just as the duo’s decades in the public eye have given them records on which they can be attacked, it has also tempered them so they are better able to withstand the heat.
Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush, said that while people will be interested in the pasts of Clinton and Jeb Bush, “they’re both skilled in getting people to see past that.”
“The difference with [Bush and Clinton] is that they’ve got a lot of experience in having to answer these types of questions, having to deal with unfortunate situations,” Fratto added. “They have what you might not expect from other candidates and campaigns who will overreact, try to hide it, not have a clear answer. With both of these candidates, they’ve been around it for so long and know how to deal with these situations.”
Terry Shumaker, a former U.S. ambassador who co-chaired Bill Clinton’s New Hampshire campaigns and is involved in Ready for Hillary in the Granite State, argued it was unrealistic to expect anyone who can entertain realistic hopes of entering the White House to have lived a blank, unblemished life.
“When people get to the high level of running for president, they’ve lived interesting, complicated lives in the private and public sectors and have done a lot. But I think voters are going to look beyond that stuff. They’re more interested in who’s going to be the best president. Elections are about the future — not the present or the past.”
Still, there are other experts who do not believe things will be quite that simple — especially when the protagonists are from families that arouse such high emotions, even within their own parties.
Referring to this week’s Clinton Foundation flap, Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz asserted that “what all of this does is reinforce the way that the Clintons, though they are beloved by many people in the [Democratic] Party, also have an incredibly checkered history which despite their best efforts, constantly re-raises its head.”
Bill Clinton, of course, also has more personal peccadilloes, notably his affair with Monica Lewinsky while in the White House. Lewinsky has re-emerged on the public stage of late as an anti-bullying advocate.
The consensus appears to be that Lewinsky has little capacity to cause the Clintons any further damage. One Clinton ally even went so far as expressing the hope that opponents would raise the issue, on the basis that such a tactic was bound to backfire. “Please, please, throw me in that briar patch,” the ally said.
When it comes to more strictly political matters, Berkovitz argued that Clinton had a disadvantage over Bush in dealing with the past.
By the nature of being first lady, and a very politically engaged one, she was a genuine player in the Clinton White House. For Bush, on the other hand, “his baggage is much more family baggage than his own. How can you blame Jeb Bush for Iraq? Or how can you blame him for the early 1990s recession? That’s a real stretch.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, took a different tack. He asserted that the time that has passed since Bill Clinton was in the White House has allowed the once-boiling partisan passions that surrounded him and his wife to cool to some degree.
Hillary Clinton, Jillson said, “at least has the benefit of 15 years of separation from the Clinton presidency, whereas Jeb Bush has a more immediate proximity to the George W. Bush presidency. That still has a rawness to it that the Clinton years no longer have.”
Still, for both candidates — and for good or for bad — the past cannot be avoided.
“It’s best to acknowledge it and not make it go away,” said Fratto. “The best way is to try and deal with it directly.”