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Opinion | Democratic Party must harness 'that vision thing' in order to compete in 2016 race

Andrew's Assessments

By Andrew Geisler
On April 14, 2014

President George H. W. Bush was famously dismissive of that "vision thing" in an anecdote retold in a New York Times article during his campaign for the presidency in 1987.

He was panned for it at the time but still won in a soulless and visionless campaign for president with Michael Dukakis in 1988. The campaign was highly negative; many commentators attribute Bush's victory to race baiting. It's widely seen as a low point in American presidential campaigns.

Bush's single term as president is making a historical comeback, but he never showed the fire in the belly it takes to make it clear you're fighting for the American public. He never understood that vision thing.

He knew foreign policy and his actions abroad were successful. Unlike FDR, he never became Dr. Win the War and Dr. New Deal. He could cut budget deals - an essential skill for a president - but couldn't bring the people along, which is of equal import. He lost his second term to a guy who couldn't stop thinking about tomorrow.

Presidential politics is about looking ahead, not back. A positive vision for the future is the key to a successful tenure as president. Foreign policy successes, which often come during a president's second term after they've lost any good will they once had on Capitol Hill, are well and good for legacy - something every president obsesses over - but a successful domestic agenda, the tangible vision thing, wins presidents plaudits with the American people.

Successful presidential terms in the modern era tend to come after a campaign where the winner was heavy on vision, and the loser usually lacked it.

The importance of the vision thing is why I'm skeptical any time I read a piece about the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president. It's the same reason Jeb Bush is far from the strongest candidate for establishment Republicans in 2016.

Both politicians come from American political dynasties. Both see the presidency as a feather in the cap of their political career.

Bush makes it clear any time he's talking on the record he's taking a hard look at the 2016 race. He also makes it clear he would be running without the fire. His policy accomplishments on education and entitlement reform in Florida make him an appealing candidate. But he even admits he'll only run if he can do it joyfully.

This presupposes finding the joy will be difficult. A review of numerous 2012 election post-mortems makes it clear Mitt Romney saw his candidacy for president as a great service to the country.

He felt he had a special set of skills and a background conducive to turning around our country's economic woes. His campaign was almost solely based on complaints about how horrendous President Obama's economic record was.

Only late did he make the turn toward domestic vision. By then, it was too late. The race was defined. Governor Romney was looking back and performing a service, not campaigning with joy. The president, to his credit, knew he had to look forward, though he too lacked the joy.

As a result, the president's domestic agenda looked relatively promising for a second term president for some time. It's fizzled now, but there was sincere and warranted excitement after the election for a time of domestic action.

Bush, despite his serious policy reputation, would be a Romney, or even Bob Dole, type candidate. One who has broken with the base so often in the past that winning the presidency would require him to eat crow far too often. Common-core and immigration reform might look good to the Aspen Ideas Conference set, of which Bush is a card carrying member, but the Republican Party is fundamentally uncomfortable with these types of candidates.

Getting hugs in an MSNBC green room is the best way to lose Republican base support, just ask Jon Huntsman and 2000 John McCain, who had to pull a Romney/Dole to get the nomination in 2008.

Clinton shares Bush's problem. If Republicans nominate a younger reform governor type with a serious domestic agenda - something looking more likely by the day - it becomes even harder for the old guard Clinton to seize on the all-important domestic vision piece of the campaign. Try as she might to change it, Hillary Clinton was long ago defined politically. Her high favorability ratings flip to unfavorable when she enters the political arena.

Bill Clinton won the presidency with a message sharply focused on three issues: change vs. more of the same, don't forget about healthcare and it's the economy, stupid. Hillary's problem is that Republicans could use a similar formula to defeat her and seize the future.

But the party cannot seize on the vision if they nominate their own version of the old guard. Jeb Bush, by his name alone, as much as it pains me to say it, represents a passé version of Republicanism. His moment was in 2012 when donors would have loved to have him swoop in and beat Romney. Hillary's moment was in 2008, and President Obama took it away.

When your moment has passed, and you're the definition of the old guard, it's hard to seize on that vision thing, which is the only way to secure a lasting domestic legacy.

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