Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about a slew of presidential hopefuls: Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and, yes, even Donald Trump.
Jeb Bush officially entered the presidential race running both for president and away from his family. His campaign logo includes his first name only, and Bush 41 and 43 were both absent at his launch. How much will the memory of his brother’s administration, and the threat of a GOP family dynasty, weigh down his run?
No one in America remembers anything, but surely our national amnesia doesn’t extend to Jeb’s lineage no matter how much he tries to bury it. Not to mention that the exclamation point in the Jeb! logo makes one feel that the whole enterprise is as contrived as a musical comedy. (Not for nothing did George H.W. Bush’s brother, Jonathan, have a brief career as a song-and-dance man, including a turn as Will Parker in a New York revival of Oklahoma! in the 1950s.) In any case, the real problem with being a Bush in this race may have less to do with his brother’s lingering taint than with the fact that Jeb is facing down a Clinton. The most basic Republican argument against Hillary is that America doesn’t want a retread. Jeb is the only candidate in the vast GOP field who cannot make that case.
But Jeb has other problems, too, as many have noted in recent weeks. The more voters see of him, the less they like him, according to the polls. His campaign has been engulfed in internal turmoil. He has raised oodles of money but he seems to incite passion in no one — unless it’s a negative passion in his own party’s base, which loathes his proselytizing for Common Core educational standards and immigration reform. And there doesn’t seem to be much passion in Jeb himself, for that matter. Even at his announcement rally, he seemed a less-than-happy warrior. His addled demeanor doesn’t make voters feel good about themselves or their country — a requisite, one would think, in the party of Reagan.
The Bush candidacy seems like an artificial conceit, a summer franchise sequel that, unlike Jurassic World, has outworn its welcome in the marketplace. It’s not clear what the rationale for it is. The tea partiers disdain Bush. The Times surveyed 120 former officials from his brother’s administration and found that only 25 supported him. The biggest arguments in favor of his candidacy seem to be that his mastery of Spanish will win over Hispanic voters and that his adult-in-the-room tone will wear better than the hot-headed shrillness of many of his opponents. But Marco Rubio comes by his Spanish naturally, and Hillary is an adult-in-the-room too. Perhaps, as the perennial theory goes, the Republican base will in the end rally around the Establishment candidate, as it finally surrendered (kicking and screaming all the way) to Mitt Romney. And perhaps for Jeb that is rationale enough. He seems to be running for no better reason than that he can.
In her opening moves as a candidate, Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric indicates she’s intent on distancing herself from President Obama yet she focuses on issues right out of his 2008 playbook. Is it fair to say that the party has moved to the left under Obama?
No. What the party has done is move to the left of where it was during Clinton’s husband’s presidency — for a myriad of reasons, including demographic change, the twin debacles of the Iraq War and the Great Recession, and the steady rightward drift of the opposition party. This is what Clinton failed to grasp when she lost to Obama in 2008, when she tripped over as Iraq much as Jeb Bush has been doing in this cycle. Whatever the sleights-of-hand of her current rhetoric, she can’t afford to distance herself from Obama if she wants to motivate African-American and young voters to turn out for her in 2016 as they did for him in the last two presidential elections, and I don’t think she is distancing herself from him in any meaningful way.
Substantively, she is talking the talk of Obama and even Elizabeth Warren in her eagerness to rouse the base. That said, her leftward drift seems completely phony to me; her broadside against CEOs, hedge-fund managers, billionaires, and corporations in last weekend’s address didn’t pass the laugh test when set against the steady tide of revelations of Clinton Foundation financial doings. Her leftward tilt is mostly pandering, in the same vein as “The Official Hillary 2016 Playlist” her campaign released on Spotify. Its seemingly focus-grouped hodgepodge of contemporary pop contained not a single song associated with her own generation, whether Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Motown, Springsteen, or even Judy Collins, whose “Chelsea Morning” is a Clinton family touchstone. But none of this is going to prevent her from gliding to the nomination, even if there are temporary embarrassments (e.g., a Bernie Sanders surge in the early primaries) along the way. Unless, as Amy Davidson wrote in an enticing post at The New Yorker’s website this week, Joe Biden is somehow tempted to emerge from mourning and step up to the plate.
Donald Trump also jumped into the presidential race this week, though he seems to be the only candidate whose chances are openly dismissed by the press. Does his announcement change anything for the GOP front-runners?
If nothing else, Trump is proof, at least as far as the political press is concerned, that there is a God. Describing his antics can make any reporter instantly seem like Hunter Thompson, and his free-wheeling announcement show at Trump Tower was no exception. It produced lots of good copy, though it’s possible no writer can match Trump’s own verbiage. You are missing something if you don’t read the full text of his speech. One choice passage, in reference to Mexicans who come to America: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Really, who can make this stuff up?
As Trump prepared to jump into the race, there were two starkly different views of his candidacy. FiveThirtyEight used polls and charts to make the case that he was the “most hated” contender since 1980, which it ran under the headline “Why Donald Trump Isn’t a Real Candidate, In One Chart.” The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, offered “Why Donald Trump Is Important, in One Chart.” What that chart showed is that Trump polls in the top ten of the GOP field. That means he will qualify for the Fox News debates even when arguably more legitimate candidates (Fiorina, Kasich) will not.
I think the Journal has it right. Trump will say or do anything. He makes Herman Cain sound like Eisenhower. When Trump starts calling Mexican immigrants rapists on the debate stage — to take only one of many conceivable stink bombs he’s capable of tossing — what will his fellow debaters do? His behavior in the arena is going to challenge and test the Republican presidential hopefuls more than any debate moderators ever could. While some argue that a Trump run is a blessing in disguise that will make the other candidates look better, Republican gatekeepers like Jennifer Rubin and Charles Krauthammer are already apoplectic about the havoc he can wreak.
We should also note NBC’s response to Trump’s candidacy: “We will re-evaluate Trump’s role as host of Celebrity Apprentice should it become necessary, as we are committed to this franchise,” Rebecca Marks, NBC’s executive vice-president of publicity, told Talking Points Memo. Could this be the soft landing for Brian Williams?