After months of speculation, it’s finally official: The 2016 election will be a showdown between the Bush and Clinton political dynasties — that is, if Jeb manages to claw his way to the front of the GOP pack. Pundits are already placing bets on which house will win 2016’s (relatively tame) game of thrones. “If you’re having a battle of dynasties, the Clinton dynasty is gonna beat the Bush dynasty every time,” former Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told CNN on Monday.
While the Bushes and Clintons have proven that they’re fiercely dedicated to electing whatever family member happens to be running, the two families may actually have a healthier view of the competition. Over the past two decades, they’ve gone from being political enemies to declaring themselves as close as family, only to lash out again when another election rolls around. Here’s a recap of the drama behind Hillary and Jeb’s potential showdown.
In the 1992, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton managed to make George H.W. Bush a one-term president by attacking him on the economy and painting him as out of touch. Character played a large role in the campaign (and it remains a theme in the Bush-Clinton relationship), with Republicans attacking Clinton for his infidelities, draft dodging, and marijuana use.
In one of the harsher debate moments from the 1992 election, President Bush attacked Governor Clinton’s patriotism and lack of military service (though he claimed he wasn’t), saying he found it “impossible to understand” how Clinton could organize anti–Vietnam War demonstrations while studying in England, as men his age were serving their country. Clinton shot back with a Senator Joe McCarthy comparison, and praised the president’s father, Senator Prescott Bush, for standing up to the Red Scare.
Jeb and Hillary got in some jabs as well, though they left the most vicious attacks to other campaign surrogates. In a local news interview captured by C-SPAN, Hillary called out the First Couple by name, accusing them of “launching these untrue attacks against me” after previously thanking her for her work on children’s issues. “They know what my husband and I have stood for, and it’s just kind of sad that in the heat of a political battle when they’re behind and they can’t run on their record and they have no plan for the future that they would engage in these kinds of tactics,” she said.
In a 1992 interview that aired on C-SPAN, Jeb said he had a problem with Governor Clinton’s “series of deceptive comments and statements,” but at another point he had a prescient prediction. “I know my dad well, and win or lose, he’ll shake Bill Clinton’s hand, look him in the eye and say ‘you fought the good fight’ and not hold anything against him personally, or his family,” Jeb said.
Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush represented two very different generations of women, and they were pitted against each other in the media — particularly after Clinton quipped that she chose to be an attorney rather than staying home to “bake cookies and have tea.”
However, immediately after the election they had a friendly meeting at the White House, and during a Christmas event the First Lady went out of her way to praise Clinton and urge the press to “give her a break.” “I hope you all will treat her like you treated me,” she told reporters. “Wait til she makes her mistakes. You waited until I made mine.”
Once they were all full-fledged members of the “presidents club,” the Bushes and Clintons managed to remain cordial at the occasional events where all former White House inhabitants are required to assemble.
Senator Hillary Clinton was frequently at odds with the George W. Bush administration, but recently she had some kind words about her effort to lobby the president for aid to New York post-9/11. “President Bush looked at us and said, ‘What do you need?’ And I said, ‘We need $20 billion to rebuild New York Mr. President.’ And he said, ‘You got it.’ I will never forget that,” Clinton said. “If you don’t build relationships with people and all you do is show up to argue and show up to point fingers, you can’t get anything done.”
Then as both presidents assisted with relief efforts following the Asian tsunami in 2005, a friendship blossomed between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. “I thought I knew him; but until this trip I did not really know him,” 41 said of traveling with his former rival in February of that year.
They worked together again when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006, and afterward Bush wrote Clinton a note about how much he appreciated their friendship, and alluded to Hillary’s potential 2008 run. “The politics between now and two years from now might put pressure on our friendship, but it is my view that it will survive,” he wrote.
January 2014, Barbara Bush described the relationship, telling C-SPAN, “I love Bill Clinton.”
While the two presidents regularly visit each other’s homes and it appears their father-son dynamic is genuine, the relationship has also been played up in the media by members of both clans. “A friendship with the older, steadier Bush conferred a legitimacy on Clinton that he had partly squandered in his final years in office,” Time magazine journalists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy wrote in their book The Presidents Club. “For Bush, the political math was just as obvious — and even closer to home: his son, the president, was a divisive figure across the nation and having the spiritual leader of the Democratic Party as a partner made it more likely that the forty-second president would deliver his criticisms of the forty-third in a kinder, gentler fashion.”
While the Clinton team was accused of pulling the W off keyboards before vacating the White House, Bill bonded with the younger Bush, too, when they both pitched in after Haiti’s earthquake in 2010. In November 2014, W. told Sean Hannity he wasn’t worried about campaigning against his family’s adopted “black sheep son” in 2016. “It means that Bill and I are going to have to have some interesting things to talk about,” Bush said, adding, “Look, I’ll still like him when Jeb beats Hillary.”
Hillary and Jeb’s role in all this Bush-Clinton camaraderie is hazy. W. has said the former secretary of State is like his “sister-in-law,” and two years ago, his daughter Barbara Bush said she hoped she would run for president, calling her “unbelievably accomplished.” (Though she added that she didn’t know who her opponent would be, and wouldn’t necessarily be voting for her.)
But Jeb is actually the Bush who’s offered the lengthiest public ode to Hillary — which, according to several conservative groups, is why the former Florida governor is “unelectable.” As chairman of the National Constitution Center, in 2013 Bush was tasked with awarding Clinton the organization’s Liberty Medal. He praised Clinton for her “lifelong career in public service,” and joked, “Hillary and I come from different political parties and we disagree about lots of things. But we do agree on the wisdom of the American people — especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.”
In her speech, Clinton joked that bipartisanship had become a “family tradition” thanks to the relationship between the former presidents. “[Jeb and I] also share something that is far more important than any of our political differences,” she said. “We both love this country and we believe in the wisdom of our founders and the constitution.”
It appears the ex-presidents are still on good terms, but Hillary and Jeb began taking shots at each other, and the opposing administration, before they even declared they were running. Last month on Face the Nation, Bush blasted the Clinton Foundation for its lack of transparency. “It turns out that the rules don’t always apply consistently for the Clintons,” he said.
And two weeks ago, Jeb was among the 2016 candidates Clinton called out by name for allegedly restricting voting rights. “In Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, state authorities conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election in 2000,” she said.
Clinton even got a shout-out — in the form of a widely mocked “that’s what she said” — as Bush officially announced his candidacy on Monday.
It looks like the truce between the Bushes and the Clintons may be off, at least until until it’s politically expedient for them to be friends again.