Unhappy Families

Someone once said that friends are God’s apology for family. The provenance of clever quips is always problematic, but someone said that – you get to choose your friends, but you’re stuck with your family. God ought to apologize. Every family has that crazy uncle who’s a total embarrassment – some of us are that crazy uncle who’s a total embarrassment – but there are crazy aunts too. Every family has that one black sheep – or several of them – but they’re the exception. They have to be. The family you know is a family of upright solid citizens, good sensible people, all of them. The exception proves that rule. Keep saying that. Pretend that’s so – but carefully explain to your current heartthrob, who is about to meet the family for the first time, that Uncle Festus is going to explain to everyone, once again, that no one ever landed on the moon and global warming is caused by cows farting and Obama was born on the planet Clorox II – he was not born in Kenya after all. She’ll understand. She has the same kind of family. The two of you will be just fine.

The idea, after all, is that the two of you will start your own family. People do get to choose who they marry. The residual eccentrics on both sides will fade into the background, except for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas. That’s manageable, but soon or later each party will discover who they really married. The wife’s friends will begin to ask her why she ever married THAT guy, and she’ll start wondering that too. And John Barrymore actually did say that love is “that delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock” – so this cuts both ways. Face it. You’re stuck with family.

Most people find a way to deal with that, through loving acceptance of what was never expected, or with a tired shrug – life isn’t perfect. Divorce is an option too. But this problem won’t go away in our politics, which has turned dynastic. Jeb Bush wants to be the third President Bush and Hillary Clinton wants to be the second President Clinton. Each will probably receive their party’s nomination. One of them will get what they want, and no one is divorcing anyone. They’ll just have to deal with the family they have.

Philip Rucker, in the Washington Post, reports that Hillary Clinton’s way of dealing with this is to keep her husband from campaigning for her at all, because he is a bit flamboyant:

The scene that unfolded here last week as Bill Clinton convened world leaders for a philanthropic conference was hardly what his wife’s champion-for-everyday-Americans campaign would have ordered up.

Gathered in Marrakesh for a Clinton Global Initiative confab, foreign oligarchs and corporate titans mingled amid palm trees, decorative pools and dazzling tiled courtyards with the former president and his traveling delegation of foundation donors — many of whom are also donors to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

When daughter Chelsea moderated a discussion on women’s empowerment, the only male panelist was Morocco’s richest person, Othman Benjelloun, whose BMCE Bank is a CGI sponsor. For the week’s biggest party, guests were chauffeured across the city to an opulent 56-room palace that boasts a private collection of Arabian horses, overlooks the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, and serves a fine-dining menu of “biolight” cuisine.

Ahead of that event, Bill Clinton greeted Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal. “See you tonight, Turki,” he told his royal highness.

Hillary was out in Iowa at the time, chowing down at Chipotle. What does her campaign do with Bill? They hide him. Even he knows he’s now the eccentric uncle:

“He’s completely focused right now on the foundation,” said Tina Flournoy, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. “That does not mean that he does not realize his wife is running for president. But he is not directly engaged in the campaign. As he has said before, if his advice is asked for, he’s happy to give it.”

This is a trade-off:

Bill Clinton has many assets. He is universally known and unusually popular; 73 percent of voters approved of his job performance as president in a Washington Post-ABC News poll in March, while his personal favorability rating stood at 65 percent in a CNN-ORC poll in March. He also is considered one of the Democratic Party’s most talented communicators; his 2012 convention speech was a standout moment in support of Obama’s reelection.

“Any conversation about Bill Clinton and his impact on the campaign has to start with the fact that Americans like him and they’ve liked him for a long time,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign who now works for Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC.

But as Bill Clinton showed in 2008, he can be an undisciplined and rogue surrogate. Some of the ugliest episodes in his wife’s campaign were his making, including his stray remarks about Obama that angered black voters in South Carolina and his behind-the-scenes meddling in the campaign’s strategy.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who feuded with Bill Clinton in 2008 over what he saw as race-baiting, said in a recent interview that the former president should be “a supporting spouse” this time around.

Yeah, Bill Clinton shouldn’t have said that Obama winning the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary didn’t matter. Jesse Jackson had once won that South Carolina primary. Boutique candidates win South Carolina. Everyone knew what he meant by that. Keep this guy in Marrakesh this time, but the New York Times’ Amy Chozick explains that it’s more than this guy’s lack of discipline:

It was a favorite riposte of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s in her 2008 presidential campaign: “I always wonder what part of the 1990s they didn’t like,” she would say about critics who brought up her husband’s administration, “the peace or the prosperity?”

She cannot say that this time:

Now, as the streets of Baltimore erupt in protests, and questions about race, poverty and the prison population suddenly tower over the political landscape, the halcyon years of the tough-on-crime Bill Clinton administration look less idyllic.

Mrs. Clinton delivered a poignant assessment of the cycle of poverty and incarceration on Wednesday in addressing the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers. But the most striking part of her speech was the unsaid but implicit rebuttal of her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which flooded America’s cities with more police officers, built dozens of new prisons and created tougher penalties for drug offenders.

Indeed, in her call to “end the era of mass incarceration,” she appeared to take an important step toward redefining what it means to be a Clinton Democrat.

If the centrist policies of the Bill Clinton years were known for stepped-up policing and prison building, deficit reduction, deregulation, welfare overhaul and trade deals, Mrs. Clinton is steering her early candidacy in the opposite direction, emphasizing economic populism, poverty alleviation and, in the criminal justice system, rehabilitation over incarceration.

She has to say that Bill screwed up, because everything has changed:

Two decades ago, Mr. Clinton urged the poor to take personal responsibility and embraced wealthy corporate leaders, who create jobs, as an important part of the solution to poverty. Now, Mrs. Clinton wants government to help working families with everything from child care to college debt. And though she has long been attacked from the left as overly solicitous of Wall Street, she has not minced words of late in blaming the wealthy for an economy that, she says, has left too many people behind.

“How many children climb out of poverty and stay out of prison?” she asked Wednesday. “That’s how we should measure prosperity.” She added: “That is a far better measurement than the size of the bonuses handed out in downtown office buildings.”

This is not the nineties:

When Mr. Clinton first ran for president, Democrats had lost five out of the previous six presidential elections. Crack cocaine was ravaging American cities, and Democrats were freshly scarred by the Willie Horton ad with which the elder George Bush portrayed Michael Dukakis as soft on violent crime.

Then, the electorate was more than 80 percent white, and Democrats battled a reputation as soft on crime and too willing to give “handouts” to welfare recipients. Mr. Clinton, calling himself a “New Democrat,” promised to put more police officers on the streets and end a cycle of government dependency associated with the poorest Americans.

That didn’t work out, but then, she was part of it, and now she can’t be:

In 1996, for example, Mrs. Clinton angered activists including her friend Marian Wright Edelman, with whom she had worked at the Children’s Defense Fund, when she stood by her husband’s overhaul of the welfare system, which cut federal assistance to the poor by nearly $55 billion over six years.

But while Mr. Clinton’s brand of politics was closely associated with the strategist Al From and his centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Mrs. Clinton’s economic approach in 2016 has tilted discernably to the left. Whether she is being pulled there by Senator Elizabeth Warren and others, or is following her own natural inclinations, Mrs. Clinton is steeping herself in liberal thinking, thanks to advisers like the progressive economists Joseph E. Stiglitz and Alan B. Krueger.

She has to say she is no longer part of that dynamic Clinton family of the nineties. Even after Monica Lewinsky, she never divorced Bill. Now she has sort of divorced him. Sometimes you have to leave the family behind.

Jeb Bush went the other way:

Likely presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said in an interview set to air Monday that he would have invaded Iraq in 2003, like his brother did, if he were President back then.

“Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked Bush in a sit-down interview.

“I would have,” Bush said.

“And so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” he added. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

Bush said that the administration of his brother, President George W. Bush, failed to establish security in Iraq after toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. That caused Iraqis to turn against the American invasion, Jeb Bush said.

“By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place as well? George W. Bush,” he said.

“So just for the news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those,” he added.

Peter Weber is having none of that:

First, let’s dispatch with that pathetic blame-sharing nonsense. Hillary Clinton – if, for some reason, voters had elected her right after her husband – would not have invaded Iraq, and neither would President Al Gore. Both probably would have invaded Afghanistan, because, after all, that country’s Taliban government was sheltering the terrorist group that had just murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, destroyed a cluster of skyscrapers, and damaged the Pentagon.

But Iraq was a textbook war of choice. There was some faulty intelligence, but it was being pushed and exaggerated by a Bush White House that wanted to invade Iraq already. I don’t think that’s even in dispute anymore.

Nobody named Clinton has ever invaded Iraq – in fact, since Somalia’s “Black Hawk Down” incident, Democrats bomb countries; they generally don’t send in ground troops. Two presidents named Bush have invaded Iraq. Voters remember that.

Weber wonders what Jeb Bush is thinking:

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll from June 2014, 71 percent of respondents said the Iraq war “wasn’t worth it,” including 44 percent of Republicans. A CBS News/New York Times poll from the same month similarly found that 75 percent of respondents said the war was not worth the costs, including 63 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents. Another June 2014 poll, from Quinnipiac, was a bit more favorable with only 61 percent saying that “going to war with Iraq” was “the wrong thing.” In all those polls, the Iraq War disapproval numbers have continued to inch upwards.

This is a family problem:

The biggest obstacle to a President Jeb Bush was always going to be his last name – a polite way of saying his brother. He knows that. He even jokes about it. But because of family loyalty or pride, or the advisers he has hired from his brother’s administration, or core convictions, Jeb Bush isn’t willing to throw his brother under the bus. From a tactical standpoint, it must be helpful having a father and brother who have collectively won three presidential elections, but acknowledging in public that George W. Bush is your most influential adviser on Middle East affairs? That’s something different.

Jeb Bush seems determined to win this or lose this as a card-carrying member of the Bush dynasty.

Weber does admit that Republican voters are fired up about foreign policy – “especially the sort of engaged partisans who vote in primaries” – but this won’t fly beyond the primaries.

It might not even fly there:

Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham dropped the hammer on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) on Monday after the likely presidential candidate said he would invade Iraq again, knowing what we know now.

“You can’t still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do,” Ingraham said on her radio show.

“If you do, there has to be something wrong with you,” she added.

And don’t say that Hillary Clinton would do the same thing:

“No, Hillary wouldn’t!” Ingraham said on Monday. “Hillary wouldn’t authorize the war now, if she knew what she knows now.”

At one point she began laughing, and doubted that Bush was “his own person” capable of breaking with his brother, President George W. Bush.

“That’s just a fun hypothetical, but you have to say no to that!” she said.

The radio host said the exchange did not bode well for Bush if he were to secure the GOP nomination and face off against Clinton and the press.

“You have to have someone who says, look, I’m a Republican but I’m not an idiot! I’m not stupid!” she said. “I learn from the past and I improve myself.”

Sometimes you do have to leave the family behind, and Josh Marshall adds this:

If you watch Bush’s exchange it’s clear he’s trying desperately to nudge the question back from ‘what we know now’ to ‘what we knew then’. As well he should. … I think ‘based on what we knew then’ is a relatively easy one for Bush or other Republican candidates to answer because you have the ‘out’ of flawed WMD intelligence and the reality – for better or worse – that a majority of Americans remember being in that situation twelve years ago and agreeing with the final decision to invade Iraq. It’s hard to criticize someone saying they would have done something at the time that you did do at the time or at least supported.

‘Based on what we know now’ is a considerably dicier question. That takes into account the non-existence of any weapons of mass destruction, the dreadful story of post-invasion Iraq and the more immediate reality that ISIS, a newly empowered Iran and more, all tie back in one sense or another to the destruction of the Iraqi regime and the subsequent US occupation and post-occupation insurgency. By this measure, I think the great majority of Americans would say that it was obviously not a good idea at all. Laura Ingraham seems to agree, for what that’s worth. Say what Bush said (and even more have your enemies repeat it for months) and a lot of Americans are going to say, what? What are you thinking?

It’s that family thing:

This is obviously a much bigger deal for a candidate named Bush – and one who’s already said he relies on his brother for advice on dealing with the Middle East. There’s simply no good way for Jeb Bush to answer this question without seeming really out of touch with where most Americans are on this issue. Saying it was a mistake alienates a significant portion of the GOP base, reopens a weirdly public family drama that the press wouldn’t let go of for years (or until Jeb’s campaign is over) and emphasizes what a lot of voters didn’t like and want to forget about Bush family rule.

Bush is helped slightly by the fact that Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War resolution – but not much. Hillary has already bit this bullet. In her memoir she stated unequivocally that the Iraq War was a mistake and that she was wrong to support it. As a Democrat she’s much better positioned to do this, since the war was never popular with the base of her party and has grown only less so over time. And in fact Bush’s wrestling with this question, though incidental in itself, may serve as a turning point of sorts for public opinion on the entire war.

That’s the odd thing here:

As the Bush presidency recedes into the past, Republicans feel less and less ideological commitment to support the Iraq War. It’s becoming part of history and something most Republicans don’t feel on the line for in partisan terms. There are a decent number of voters who weren’t even adults when the war started. That’s shifted the ground a great deal since the 2008 campaign and even the 2012 campaign. But there are so many other foreign policy challenges and crises today that the actual decision to invade Iraq, as opposed to cleaning up the various messes that the decision created or made possible, gets fairly little attention. Only another Bush can really make the decision to invade Iraq a newly relevant question. And now, loosened up from some of its ideological moorings and seen in its totality, the Iraq War seems a lot more clearly, and to a lot more people, to have been a mistake of truly historic proportions. Indeed, a purely voluntary and self-inflicted catastrophe of staggering proportions.

It had not occurred to me that Iraq could be such a significant issue for Bush or that he couldn’t manage to find a more artful way of squaring the circle. But now I think it will and that he can’t.

In short, the issue was going to go away. It had gone away. Jeb Bush brought it back. He had to. He couldn’t walk away from his family.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has a slightly different take on this:

Bush has to know this is toxic to the general public. Even with the gruesome violence of ISIS, pluralities – and sometimes majorities – of Americans oppose further major involvement in Iraq. Last June, in a poll from Quinnipiac University, 61 percent of Americans said the Iraq war was the wrong thing to do, and that October, in a poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 66 percent of Americans said the war was “not worth it.”

But at this moment in the election, Bush isn’t speaking to the public. He’s speaking to Republicans. And even now, most Republicans think the war was a good idea. Last year, in a poll from USA Today and the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Republicans said it was “right to use” military force in Iraq. And in the aforementioned Quinnipiac survey, 56 percent of Republicans agreed that the war “was the right thing for the United States.” In that instance, Republicans were the only group to show majority support.

Something else may be going on here:

If Bush were running unopposed – or with marginal opposition – there might not be an imperative to embrace the Iraq war. But he’s running in a crowded field of legitimate competitors, where most are hawkish (Sen. Rand Paul is the notable exception) and one, Sen. Marco Rubio, has the belligerent posturing of George W. Bush in his first term. In his 2010 campaign for Senate, Rubio praised the Iraq war for making the world “better off,” and in a 2013 speech in London, he called the war a “vitally important achievement” of America’s relationship with the United Kingdom. He’s pushed interventions in Syria (he would have armed the rebels), opposed withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants a more aggressive stance toward Iran. As Eliana Johnson wrote for National Review last year, Rubio is the neoconservative candidate for 2016: “To this group, beating back the rising tide of non-interventionism in the Republican party is a top priority, and they consider Rubio a candidate, if not the candidate, capable of doing so.”

This is about Marco Rubio:

You can chalk up Jeb Bush’s Iraq position to familial loyalty, if you want. But you shouldn’t ignore the politics of it. Bush needs to distinguish himself from a younger, more popular competitor in a congested presidential field. Embracing the Iraq war – and his brother’s legacy on foreign policy – is one way to challenge Rubio on his own turf, at least among donors and elites. Likewise, over on the left, Clinton is rejecting the triangulation of her husband and adopting progressive positions on criminal justice and immigration reform, to bolster her position and preclude a repeat of the 2008 primary.

But that only leads to irony:

Most observers assumed Clinton and Bush would be forced to make some moves because of the political legacy of family members. What’s ironic is that they’ve moved opposite of expectations. Bill Clinton is among the most popular presidents of recent memory, and George W. Bush is among the most disliked. But Hillary, eager to define herself and reconstitute the Obama coalition, has distanced herself from her husband while Jeb, fighting to build stature in a melee of a Republican primary, has pulled closer to his unsuccessful brother.

That is odd, but Tolstoy said it best in Anna Karenina – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And it’s even worse in politics.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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