According to new polls, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton aren’t viewed very favorably. (AP Photo)
Voters of America: What exactly is your problem?
For months, we in the media have been telling you, repeatedly and in very small words, that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are going to be the nominees in 2016. They’ve got big money, big names, the comforting ’90s vibe. Their debates will feel like a rerun of “Friends,” before everyone started doing drugs and sleeping with each other.
Just a few days ago, some guy wrote an entire op-ed in Politico titled “Newsflash: It’s Going to Be Hillary vs. Jeb.” Since the writer wasn’t God or Nostradamus, I didn’t really feel the need to keep reading, but clearly you should have, because you’re just not getting the message.
According to a batch of brand-new polling, the number of voters who view Clinton favorably has dropped below 50 percent for the first time since she last ran for president in 2008; suddenly fewer people like her than don’t. Ditto for Jeb, who, according to the results of an ABC/Washington Post poll, would be the least liked Republican in the potential field were it not for the beneficence of Donald Trump.
Why is it so hard to accept your fate already? Why do you insist on dating bad boys like Scott Walker and Bernie Sanders when we’ve gone to such trouble to arrange reliable marriages that benefit everyone?
Don’t tell me it’s because Americans are suspicious of dynastic rule — whoever started that meme must have stopped reading his textbook after the bit about King George. Take away the Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes, and the last century of political history would read like some Mad Lib. We’re just fine with dynasties, for better or worse.
No, the reason Clinton and Bush are having trouble keeping your affection is less about who they are than where they’ve been. The reality is that candidates returning from long absences are a little like distant relatives; the idea of a reunion sounds great, but when they show up at your door it’s another story.
If there’s one thing we all love in politics, it’s the idea of the candidate who seems above the litany of daily disappointments in Washington. Presidential narratives are often built around the idea that a candidate has been away somewhere (other than prison, say) and is just now coming back because he can’t stand what a mess all these lesser politicians have made of things.
Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan exploited that ideal, which Newt Gingrich (quoting his favorite political philosopher, Arnold Toynbee) once described to me as the doctrine of “departure and return.”
Clinton and Bush embody that idea, too. After four years as secretary of state, followed by a few years of relative seclusion, Clinton was enjoying the highest approval ratings of her political life; to most Americans who weren’t hardened anti-Clinton conspiracists, she seemed to have entered the realm of statesmanship.
Bush spent most of the last decade talking reasonably about education reform and the environment, to the point where a lot of voters had almost forgotten about his partisan role in the recount debacle of 2000.
The problem is that once you return to the arena, once you start giving speeches that sound more or less like everybody else’s, then you’re no longer departed, and we can’t quite remember why it was you seemed so alluring in the first place. Suddenly you’re a politician again.
And running for office isn’t like the proverbial riding of a bike, where you can leave off for a decade and then, on a whim, just climb onto some rental and scale a mountain. Politics at this level is more like hitting a baseball. It takes a while to get your timing back, and that’s only if your clarity of vision and basic skills haven’t deteriorated.
In the case of both Bush and Clinton, this basic rustiness seems to have been compounded by a certain arrogance — an inner voice that says, “I already know how to hit a baseball, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend every day at the cage practicing my swings.”
It’s almost unthinkable — and it shook a lot of the Republican operatives who should be his supporters — that Bush didn’t have an answer for the question about the Iraq invasion and whether he would have done the same thing his brother did. What possible explanation is there for that, other than that he’s decided he can pretty much wing this thing?
If he actually asked his aides to prepare him for the campaign trail and they didn’t raise that question more than once, then he should probably think about getting some new aides.
The other problem you have, when you’re the kind of candidate who’s been off the scene for a while and who thus occupies an exalted place in the minds of the electorate, is that your party’s operatives will tell you almost anything to get you to return. So it might take a few months to realize that the theory of the campaign to which you’re clinging, which everyone around you said was totally brilliant and doable back in January, is actually about as relevant this year as Ross Perot.
You can bet that all the Clinton whisperers made 2016 sound like a mere formality and nothing like the grind of 2008. We’ll send your stunt double to have lunch at a Chipotle in Ohio , and you can just hole up in Chappaqua and watch “Downton Abbey” reruns. No worries — we’ll call when you clinch.
But then she won’t answer questions about her private emails or her foundation’s foreign donors, and she refuses to tell anyone where she is on a free-trade bill that’s dividing Washington, and suddenly the diving poll numbers aren’t something you can ignore. Clinton remains the clear favorite to win the nomination, but her persona as a stateswoman is already a casualty, and it’s not even summer.
Bush started out his campaign spouting this stuff about how you had to be willing to lose the primaries in order to win the general election, a theory his eager advisers must have validated. And a pretty courageous one, too, except that he has spent most of his time lately trying to mollify conservative primary voters, who, it appears, might be just fine with nominating Mike Huckabee or Ben Carson and watching him get pulverized in November.
What the voters in both parties are telling us in these polls, more than anything else, is that they’re not going to have their nominees dictated to them. What you all seem to be saying is that Clinton and Bush are formidable but also uninspiring, and you intend to weigh all your options before making that decision for yourselves.
Well, OK, but you know the conventional wisdom in Washington seems to be that this is all just preseason jitters, and by fall the inevitable nominees will be exactly what they’re supposed to be, which is inevitable.
In other words: Trust us. You’ll learn to love them over time.