By all accounts, the United States is in need of new leadership capable of providing it with some direction in an age of uncertainty. Led by President Barack Obama into a dense fog of incertitude about its place in the world, the US today vacillates between the perceived comfort of isolation and the very American aspiration to leadership.
As conventional wisdom would have it right now, most Americans are willing to vote for almost anyone as long as he or she is not Obama—hoping to forget the Obama episode and treat it like a bad dream. If that view is correct, both Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner as the nominee of the Democratic Party, and Jeb Bush, who has just hinted he might seek the Republican nomination, would have a good chance. In other words, we might yet witness another Clinton-Bush duel.
The trouble is that conventional wisdom could be as wrong as non-conventional speculation.
Like classical Greek tragedies, American presidential elections may appear to have the same format but always end up developing their own specific and unexpected features. Both Mrs. Clinton and Governor Bush have the potential to be strong candidates. They have at least four things in common. The first is name recognition, always an advantage in American politics. The average voter who has a short memory span need not scratch his head to remember who they are.
The second is that both are discipline politicians who take their professions seriously. Over the years, whenever I met either of the two I found them extremely well-prepared on the issues slated to be discussed. In one meeting with Mrs. Clinton when she was a senator, for example, I was surprised to see how well-briefed she was on the details of tribal life in Iraq. As for Jeb Bush, partly thanks to his family background, he has been nurtured on international politics from childhood.
The third thing the two have in common is a strong support base within the central organizational machines of their respective parties. The Clintons have been building their base since the late 1980s. In fact, it was a surprise that Obama managed to beat that machine and prevent Hillary from winning the nomination in 2008. As for Jeb, he is already established as a leading figure in the Republican establishment. Such an advantage would enable both Hillary and Jeb to build a much bigger war chest than any of their potential rivals are likely to achieve. And in American high politics, money not only talks, it also outshouts the adversary.
Finally, both could claim substantial experience, Jeb as governor of Florida, which has the fourth largest economy of the 50 US states, and Hillary as a senator and Secretary of State.
Apart from these commonalities, no two people could be more different than Jeb and Hillary. Strange though it might sound, it is Jeb, the quintessential offspring of a political dynasty, who could project himself as a president of the people with least difficulty.
Last time I had lunch with him in Miami he suggested we take a stroll along the promenade to continue our discussion. Soon, the stroll came to resemble a campaign walk with people coming to shake Jeb’s hand and stop to have a chat with him. It was obvious that the ex-governor was in his element when in direct contact with his electors.
In contrast, Hillary always appears cold, distant and reserved. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that for years she had to stand in the shadow of her charismatic husband, governor and then President Bill Clinton. The result is that she appears to be a political “insider,” unable to transmit much warmth.
Both Jeb and Hillary might find their surnames both an advantage and a handicap. Until Obama inspired a new degree of hatred, no name so enraged the Republicans as that of “Clinton.” During the war in the former Yugoslavia I arranged a meeting with Senator Alfonse D’Amato, then a big shot Republican figure, to see whether the US might intervene to stop the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Soon, however, it became clear that the senator would oppose any move that might give President Clinton any credit on humanitarian grounds.
Similarly, it is enough to see Obama’s almost pathological hatred of the very name “Bush” to perceive a mirror image of that affliction among Democrats. A couple of years ago, I was present at a luncheon when President Obama inaugurated a new wing of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas in the presence of some three hundred guests. Obama spoke for 15 minutes, with the help of his ever-present teleprompter, taking care not to use the word “Bush.” In fact, Obama built his entire presidency on his real or feigned hatred of George W. Bush, thus becoming one of the most divisive presidents in US history.
A Clinton-Bush duel is certain to galvanize the most radical elements on both sides of the American political divide. That could derail the whole debate by unleashing sinister energies for revenge in the style of the showdown at the OK Corral.
The increasingly partisan nature of US politics over the past two decades has generated a degree of bitterness unprecedented in American political history. The outside world is astonished at the degree of hatred on show in a system that, theoretically at least, is designed for understanding, compromise and cooperation.
A United States that is at war against itself, even though this is a political and cultural war, cannot be a force for peace in the wider world. It becomes, at best, irrelevant, and at worst dangerous.
After three increasingly divisive presidents since the 1990s, the US needs a healer to take at least some of the poison out of American politics, tone down the cultural civil war, and reclaim a position of leadership in a new world order, the contours of which are not easy to define.