Hillary Clinton praised a former president to a crowd of cheering liberal supporters earlier this month as “absolutely committed” and unwavering in his support of one of her causes.
The man she spoke of was not her husband, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, whom she hopes to succeed. It was George W. Bush — long one of the left’s most potent villains.
In an unusual election year, when a quarter of Republicans say they do not have a favorable opinion of their presumptive nominee, Clinton is making striking overtures to conservatives even as she works to shore up support on the left flank of her party by winning over Sen. Bernie Sanders’ liberal backers.
That’s included surprisingly warm talk about both former Presidents Bush, as well as GOP icon Ronald Reagan. At a campaign stop in Westminster, Calif., earlier this month, Clinton said she was fortunate enough to have known “a lot of presidents.”
“I knew President George H.W. Bush, and he was always willing to talk about issues and ask what was on your mind,” she said. Of his son, she offered more specific praise, saying he was “absolutely committed” after 9/11 to his promise to get New York City the billions of dollars it needed to rebuild. “He never wavered and I’ll never forget that,” she said of Bush, as a few supporters clapped tepidly. (At Nancy Reagan’s funeral in March, a CNN journalist posted a photo of the two hugging.)
Earlier this week, Clinton cited Bush again in her first remarks addressing the terrorist attack in Orlando, praising him for speaking at a Muslim community center just six days after the 9/11 attacks to send a message that the American Muslim community should not be blamed for them.
The next day, in another campaign speech, Clinton mentioned the letter Bush Sr. left for her husband after Bill Clinton defeated him in the bruising 1992 election. Bush wrote that he was “rooting” for Clinton to succeed, since his success was now the country’s success. “It moved me to tears, just like it did all those years ago,” she said. “That’s the America we love. That is what we cherish and expect.”
Clinton uses the Bushes to draw a contrast with Trump, who she argues does not have the “temperament” to put country first as previous presidents, conservative and liberal, have. (In April, her campaign made this point via Snapchat, using the “face swap” feature to mash Trump’s face with those of Reagan, the Bushes and Abraham Lincoln while playing Trump’s comments about abortion, Mexican immigrants and the Ku Klux Klan.) She also frequently criticizes Bush on the stump, saying he left an economic “mess” for Obama to clean up with his policies. But the praise is still striking, especially given that it started while Clinton was battling a primary opponent who ran to her left. She runs the risk of alienating Sanders supporters, who are already suspicious of Clinton as insufficiently progressive.
Waxing nostalgic about past Republican presidents is not usually a great Democratic primary strategy. In 2008, when Clinton was fighting Obama for the nomination, she criticized him during a debate for previously calling Reagan a “transformational president.” “You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan … and you talked about the ideas of the Republicans. … I didn’t talk about Ronald Reagan,” Clinton said. Obama shot back by digging up and citing Clinton’s paean to Reagan in a then-newly published book by Tom Brokaw.
But it seems like in this election, for Clinton at least, praising past Republican leaders is no longer taboo. That’s due in part to the opportunity the Clinton campaign sees in wooing disenchanted conservative and independent voters.
Last week, in a speech announcing her historic status as the first woman to lead a major party in the U.S., Clinton explicitly called upon Republicans to vote for her. “This election is not, however, about the same old fights between Democrats and Republicans,” she said. “This election is different. It really is about who we are as a nation.” She added: “And if you agree — whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent — I hope you’ll join us.”
Some already have. Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson announced his support in an op-ed this week, as have GOP donor Meg Whitman and political operatives who worked for Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney.
Republican consultant Liz Mair, who runs an anti-Trump super-PAC, said she believes Clinton’s strategy of praising the Bushes could help her “lock down” conservative national security hawks who have concerns about Trump as commander in chief and are leaning toward Clinton.
But will it alienate liberals, especially those who wanted the political “revolution” Sanders promised? “There are certainly liberals who won’t like this, but they’re the same people who don’t like Hillary Clinton’s votes on the Iraq War, or surveillance policy or her general hawkishness anyway — and those people have already shown, by and large, that they’ll fall in line and back her,” Mair said.
Clinton is also buoyed by the fact that liberals strongly dislike Trump and are motivated to vote against him and thus, for her. The Clinton campaign points to poll numbers that show 20 percent of Sanders voters say they would choose Trump over Clinton, lower than the 26 percent of Clinton voters who said they would support McCain over Obama at the same time in 2008.
Clinton’s remarks on the Bushes are also not just political strategy — they reflect a genuine mutual regard between her family and the Bushes, politics aside. George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, “Decision Points,” that his father and Bill Clinton enjoyed one of the “more unlikely friendships in American political history.” They worked together on relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami and in fundraising for Hurricane Katrina, and Clinton and both Bushes flew together to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral. He wrote in his memoir that his mother jokingly referred to Clinton as his stepbrother, given the father-son-like relationship Clinton had developed with Bush Sr. Bush has called Clinton his “brother from another mother,” and he joked in an interview with CNN that Hillary Clinton is like his sister-in-law.
The friendship between these two American dynasties does not erase their political differences, however, and neither of the Presidents Bush seem likely to join the conservatives who have backed Clinton. But they also won’t back Trump, who has arguably criticized George W. Bush more harshly than Clinton has this election. (Trump said Bush didn’t keep the country “safe” and lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but has since backed off those critiques.) After former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush lost his primary bid, both Bushes said they would sit out this election entirely.