This is a tale of two brothers, of two speeches, of two decades, of two eras and of two perspectives. It illuminates a difficult period in our past and sheds light on a promising period in our future. It examines some of the preoccupations of the George W. Bush presidency and suggests some of the themes of the Jeb Bush presidential campaign.
Jeb, the younger Mr. Bush, attracted enormous attention with his campaign-style policy address before the Detroit Economic Club last week. Commentators remarked upon his upbeat style and his middle-class focus, all of which set the tone of the campaign to come.
But Mr. Bush’s remarks also helped clarify the policy differences and philosophical divergences with his brother, who, it turns out, gave an important speech to the very same group almost exactly 10 years earlier.
The Jeb Bush speech of Feb. 4, 2015, may be remembered as the inaugural address of the former governor’s national ascendancy and is surely the opening bell of the 2016 presidential campaign. The George W. Bush speech before the Detroit Economic Club of Feb. 8, 2005, attracted modest attention at the time but is lost to American memory in the crowded hours of an administration that included a world-changing terrorist attack, two wars and a devastating recession — all of which produced shock waves that buffet us still.
There are, to be sure, surface similarities between the two men, and between the two speeches. Both were addresses of solid conservatism leavened with conscious compassion. The 43rd president spoke in Detroit of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” one of his signature lines and one that preceded his presidency. The man who would be the 45th president spoke of an American Dream that “has become a mirage for far too many.”
Indeed, both themes, and both sound bites, are derivative of a father, the 41st president, who introduced the phrase “kinder, gentler” into the American political lexicon and, in the wake of two terms of the Ronald Reagan presidency, sought to apply that notion to the new conservatism that Mr. Reagan had invigorated. (This prompted Nancy Reagan, the keeper of the Reagan flame and curator of the Reagan legacy, to wonder: kinder and gentler than whom?)
The Detroit Economic Club has been an important policy forum since the Depression year of 1934 and has been host to every president since Richard M. Nixon. The second President Bush used his speech there to set forth a vigorous emphasis on economic growth as his central theme. His younger brother used his speech to offer a searing critique of an economic climate where the divide between rich and poor threatened to choke off the social mobility that is so important a part of the American identity.
George W. Bush: “I love the entrepreneurship of America. I think it’s what makes us a unique place.”
Jeb Bush: “Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin.”
These are different times, of course, and the economic divide that is so much a part of the American debate in 2015 was not as poignant an issue in 2005, when the country’s attention was on wars abroad and terrorist threats at home.
Indeed, one of the major themes of the older brother was energy independence, prompting the president to plead from the Detroit lectern: “For the sake of this economy, for the sake of national security, Congress needs to pass an energy plan and get it to my desk as soon as possible, so we can become less reliant on foreign sources of energy.” No 2016 presidential candidate will say anything remotely like that in an era when energy independence may be within reach.
President Bush used his Detroit speech to advocate a change in “our outdated immigration laws,” specifically deploring plans for amnesty. His brother’s vision is subtlety different, with more room for immigrants illegally in the United States to remain. “You come, you work hard, you embrace [American] values, and you’re as American as anyone who came on the Mayflower,” he said in Detroit last week.
In the past several weeks, as the younger Mr. Bush’s presidential aspirations have become clearer, he has sought to clarify his views and to separate them, slightly but unmistakably, from those of his brother. He has done so with nuance, not so much shifting his feet away from George W. Bush conservatism as shifting his posture.
The effort is less a review of his brother’s conservatism than a revelation of his own, encapsulated in remarks like this, from the Detroit speech: “I know some in the media think conservatives don’t care about the cities. But they are wrong. We believe that every American in every community has the right to pursue happiness.”
This differentiation has its analogue in the Democratic Party, where former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has to perform the task in stereo, first by setting herself apart from her husband, the 42nd president, and then by setting herself apart from the Barack Obama presidency of which she was a prominent part. Both Mr. Bush and Mrs. Clinton have to perform a difficult political pas de deux: get some lift from a president now regarded as revered (George H.W. Bush) or successful (Bill Clinton) while not being weighed down by the ballast of a controversial president (George W. Bush and Mr. Obama).
This is not a new challenge for either. Mrs. Clinton addressed it in her successful Senate campaigns in New York in 2000 and 2006 and Mr. Bush addressed it in his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1994 and again in 1998, when he prevailed. “Trust me, by the end of that, people knew that I wasn’t just the brother of George W. and the son of my beloved dad,” Mr. Bush said in Detroit. “I was my own person. I earned it.”
Mr. Bush went on to say that if he ran for president in 2016 he would do the same “on a national level.” If so, then that effort, and that journey, began in the automobile city of Detroit, whose industrial product since the end of the 19th century has set Americans on their journeys. Mr. Bush’s 21st-century journey may well have begun there as well.