Everyone says elections are about the future, but the 2016 presidential campaign has lately been dominated by questions about the past.
While candidates want to discuss what they would do once the White House becomes theirs, they’ve instead been bogged down by questions about the previous three administrations. Perhaps it's inevitable when the leading candidates in each field are named Bush and Clinton.
On the Republican side, Iraq has ensnared a third Bush with White House ambitions. Jeb Bush’s stumbling attempts to definitively answer whether his brother’s Iraq War was a mistake raised eyebrows and seemed to further weaken his wobbly front-runner pedestal.
At first, Bush answered that he would have supported the invasion if he had the same intelligence his brother, George W. Bush, had at the time. The next day after that interview aired, Bush said he had misinterpreted the question, then dismissed the whole exercise as a “hypothetical.” Finally, he acknowledged that he would not have ordered the war had he been president and known there was no threat of weapons of mass destruction.
“It got a little bumpy, but all is well now,” Bush said at a roundtable in New Hampshire on Wednesday. “The ship is stable.”
Other candidates immediately had to answer the same question, and while they were quick to say they would not have invaded Iraq if they knew then what we know now, most refused to call it a mistake.
This led to a confusing middle ground of its own, which tripped up Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in particular when "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace grilled him on how he could say he wouldn’t have ordered the invasion without also acknowledging the war was a mistake.
Answering for George W. Bush, who left the White House with dismal approval ratings and has been a persona non grata at GOP campaign stops, has to be one of the last things Republican 2016 hopefuls want to spend a week doing. But they’ve got company.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s small business message was drowned out in Iowa this week by questions about her old job working for the current president, and about the charitable foundation started by her husband, the former president.
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She took questions from reporters for the first time in nearly a month, and they were all related to her tenure as secretary of state, her involvement with the Clinton Foundation (she resigned last month), or her vote in favor of the Iraq War when she was in the U.S. Senate.
And the past will keep lobbing bombs at Clinton’s future as the State Department prepares to release the emails she turned over from a privater server. And instead of one big document dump, the emails will be released in drips and drabs for perhaps the next eight months, offering opponents many chances to take new whacks at Clinton.
Beyond her work as secretary of State, Clinton’s future is often hemmed by her past history with the two previous Democratic White Houses.
When she rolled out a bold criminal justice reform agenda last month, it was muddied by the fact that her husband constructed much of the criminal justice edifice she wanted to tear down.
On trade policy, the biggest issue in Democratic politics of the moment, Clinton is again torn between her past and future. On one side is her husband, who signed the sweeping North American Free Trade Agreement, and her former boss, who is pushing the new Trans Pacific Partnership deal with a dozen Asian countries.
On the other side is a progressive movement almost entirely united in opposition to Obama’s trade agenda. Clinton will need their support for her second presidential campaign, and her stance on trade (which she has not yet made clear) could trump her recent moves to the left on social issues.
With such long track records in public life, both Bush and Clinton will repeatedly have to answer for past votes, statements, and actions.
So far, it’s been Republicans who are actively working to hang Clinton’s past around her neck. Clinton, meanwhile, has tried to focus on her message for the future and ignore (in public at least) her potential GOP opponents. It's been reporters and opponents who have tried to make the past stick to Clinton.
That will likely change once Republicans get closer to selecting a nominee. And if it’s Bush against Clinton, the past will likely dominate an election supposedly about the future.