And so begins “Dynasty: Politics Edition,” as the establishment candidates of 2016 reset their campaigns: Hillary Clinton did so on Saturday, with a tribute to her mom on New York’s Roosevelt Island, and Jeb Bush showed off his makeover at Miami Dade College on Monday. Bush’s rally made his run official. Delaying the announcement allowed his campaign to build a war chest of almost $100 million, without having to abide by election laws.
Jeb was as affable as ever, though the teleprompter remains an enemy. Excitement still eludes him (for that he has to rely on the exclamation mark in his campaign logo — Jeb! — which conveniently omits his last name). He needs something flashy to distract angry Republican primary voters from his positions on Common Core and immigration.
But nothing in his speech seemed up to the task: He can fix things because “I’ve done it” and he’ll take Washington “out of the business of causing problems” and “start making rules for the rule makers.” As further proof that he’s a different kind of Republican, he chose to make his speech at a college with a majority Hispanic enrollment and had his rarely seen Mexico-born wife Columba at his side.
In contrast to the impression Hillary hoped to create by sitting, listening and nodding with small groups in Iowa and New Hampshire, Jeb had started his unofficial run by conveying the idea that he was headed for a coronation, which should have scared off primary challengers. Instead, by floating above the field, he emboldened a raft of newbies, especially that upstart Marco Rubio, who was in knee pants in Tallahassee when Jeb was Florida governor.
Failing to dominate, he was forced to take the embarrassing step of rejiggering the staff of a campaign he hadn’t even announced yet. It was like taking a mulligan before the first tee. It’s never good when a candidate takes to referring to himself in the third person, as Bush did in trying to get some distance from his brother, George W. “Jeb is different than George and Jeb is who he is,” he told CNN on Sunday.
Hillary has faced a different kind of problem. She needed her relaunch, as it was called, not because she had rival candidates nipping at her heels, but because she didn’t. The person beating Clinton is the Old Clinton. She had over-corrected for the overconfident juggernaut of 2004 by overdoing the ordinary everywoman shtick.
But if her official announcement in April was a boring videotaped collection of individuals hitting all the interest- group buttons, and a cameo appearance by Hillary herself, Saturday gave us the woman in full choreographed glory. She looked good in mother-of-the-bride blue. Lest natural sunlight be unflattering, she was bathed in controlled artificial light. Not only did her husband not upstage her, dressed in a tight red T-shirt, he looked like he was just any old Joe stopping by on his way to the gym.
And you couldn’t miss her new theme: She’s a fighter who will punch in the nose anyone who doesn’t stand up for those “who stand on their feet all day,” “for the nurses who work the night shift,” for “the truckers who drive for hours” and “the farmers who feed us.” Even if you don’t trust her (recent polls say fewer than 50 percent of Americans do, what with the destroyed e-mails and controversial Clinton Foundation donations), you can rely on her to get up every morning and come out swinging for the little guy. She joined age and gender into one sound bite: “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”
The one thing missing was what her strategists admit she needs: Barack Obama’s winning coalition. The crowd was predominantly white, some with daughters on their shoulders. She hit the right notes, from the environment to LGBT rights, to a “smarter, simpler, more efficient government” (shades of Bill, including a laundry list of smallish programs), and criminal justice reform.
Neither Clinton nor Bush has lit up their party’s activists, though this is less of worry for Clinton than it is for Bush, who finds himself in a tough fight for the nomination. Both are leaden speakers, and mistake loud voices for intensity. Neither looks fired up and ready to go. The cerebral Bush is too nice to throw red meat to get a leg up. As for Clinton, her move left on gays, immigration, criminal justice, the Iraq war, and trade (though who knows where she’ll wind up), makes it look as though she is following her party and not asking that the party follow her.
On Saturday, Clinton played the biography card to show she can relate to the hardships borne by ordinary voters, even if she had to reach back a generation to her mother. Abandoned by her parents, Dorothy Rodham, Clinton said, was working on her own as a housemaid by age 14. “Kindness from someone who believed she mattered” — a school teacher and woman she cleaned for — kept her going.
Hillary needed to do something to recover from the Clintons’ prior efforts to be one with the working man (they said they were “dead broke,” and “gotta pay our bills” to rationalize millions in speaking fees). With her mother’s tough go of it, Hillary is catching up with Republican candidates falling over one another to tell the most dramatic life-story — Texas Gov. Rick Perry growing up on a cotton farm without running water; Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father sewed money into his underwear for his trek to this country; and Gov. Scott Walker, the all-American son of a Baptist minister who flipped hamburgers at McDonald’s.
And Bush? Well, he wisely doesn’t even try to compete in the Horatio Alger contest. There’s still a lot of money riding on a Bush (Republicans default to the establishment) vs. Clinton race despite their unimpressive starts. In this week’s episode of Dynasty, the less royal you look the better, and Clinton wins by a nose.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.