Which two movies provide the best insight into how the coming US Presidential Election will play out? This was the question posed by Jacob Heilbrunn, Editor of The National Interest, at a recent Legatum Institute discussion.
Political movie fans might suggest Primary Colours, the anonymously authored account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against George H. W. Bush. Or perhaps The Ides of March (2011), the tense political thriller which sees an idealistic Ryan Gosling get caught up in the dirty side of politics while working for a presidential candidate played by George Clooney. But Heilbrunn offered neither of these.
Instead, Heilbrunn cited Election (1999), the little-known indie movie that sees a tenacious and devious Reese Witherspoon running unopposed for school president, stopping at nothing to get what she wants. This, said Heilbrunn, provides insight into what Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency might look like.
The second movie, for Heilbrunn, is the recent Kingsman (2014) in which an elite spy agency recruits a young, unrefined, untested street kid into their training programme (think James Bond mixed with Johnny English). The agency mirrors the GOP while the established central character (Colin Firth) represents Jeb Bush—the safe and obvious choice. The young, untested recruit could be any number of Republican candidates including the like of Ted Cruz, the maverick libertarian Senator from Texas who, among other things, wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and introduce a flat tax rate.
Following Hillary’s official announcement earlier this month, it would seem inevitable that she will secure the Democratic nomination, potentially unopposed (very few Democrats will want to stand in front of the Clinton juggernaut). When it comes to predicting who will secure the Republican nomination the smart money is on Jeb Bush. Bush has huge fundraising capability combined with a formidable infrastructure of advisors, supporters, and donors—the Bush ‘machine’ is perhaps only rivalled by the organisational infrastructure of the Clintons, which makes for a potentially fascinating showdown, one which will be very well-funded on both sides.
But is Jeb Bush a shoe-in? Not necessarily, says Heilbrunn. Another likely option is Scott Walker, the current Governor of Wisconsin. Walker is most well-known for facing-down the labour unions in his state and for surviving a recall vote in June 2012, only the third vote of its kind in US history.
Another reason why Bush is not a certainty comes down to a complexity of the US Presidential election process in which would-be candidates have to appeal to two separate groups of voters.
On the one hand there is the party “base” (what in the UK we’d refer to as the grass-roots). The Republican base tends to be very socially conservative and more activist in its approach and holds a lot of power when it comes to selecting the party’s nominee. “The lunatics aren’t quite running the asylum but they are very close to the keys”, explained Heilbrunn.
Then there is the national electorate who are less conservative and more populist in nature. This presents a conundrum for GOP candidates who, if they want to secure their party’s nomination, need to present themselves as ultra conservative in order to win the base, only to row-back to the centre ground thereafter. This is a problem that former Republican nominee Mitt Romney knows well after struggling to convey authenticity on several high-profile policy issues during his own campaign.
The same problem exists for Jeb Bush. He advocates policies which don’t sit comfortably with the base of his party, most notably in education where Bush advocates Common Core—the introduction of national academic standards which requires an active role for the state in education—and on immigration where Bush wants to offer immigrants a path to legal status if they “work … don’t break the law, learn English, and contribute to society”. In light of this, Heilbrunn was asked how he thinks Bush is planning to win over the base of the party with policies like these tied around his neck? Simply put, he’s not, was Heilrunn’s surprising answer: “Bush’s aim is to survive the primaries…mauled.” And this certainly reflects reality given how Bush is showing no sign of amending his positions on some of these more unpopular issues.
Back to Hillary. Heilbrunn discussed how a Hillary Clinton Administration may differ from the Obama Administration in which she served for five years, as well as how much she would differ from the man who sat in the Oval Office between 1993-2001 (with whom she shares a surname). Heilbrunn offered a suggestion of a divide within the Democratic Party with those who favour a return to the ideals of the first Clinton Administration marked by a robust foreign policy, traditional social values and, of course, a strong economy. This group stands in contrast to those Democrats who are generally more socially liberal; favour a reduced role for the US abroad in terms of foreign policy, and who played such a vital role in electing Barack Obama in 2008.
One of the most intriguing questions about a Hillary presidency is what role Bill Clinton would play in her administration in his capacity as First Man (or is it First Gentleman…or perhaps just Mr President…?) To this, Heilbrunn offers a tongue-in-cheek response: if Hillary becomes president, one thing will certainly be true: “Bill will have a greater role than her staff would like".
By Nathan Gamester
Video Interview with Jacob Heilbrunn
About the Speaker
Jacob Heilbrunn is Editor of The National Interest. Previously, he served as editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times and Senior Editor at The New Republic. Heilbrunn is the author of They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons (Anchor, 2009). He has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and the FT, among others.