WASHINGTON — Democrats are already trying to stop prospective White House contender Jeb Bush from defining himself as a reformer who aims to close the gap between the rich and poor, drawing unflattering comparisons between the former Florida Governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Although many months remain until the first votes are cast in the 2016 Presidential race, potential candidates have long since been jockeying for position and gearing up for the drawn-out, state-by-state primary nomination process.
On the Republican side, there is no overwhelming favorite for the nomination. But Romney’s recent decision to not run in 2016 could be a boost for Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who were competing for the support of the Republican Party’s establishment-minded voters and donors.
The eventual Republican nominee will likely face Hillary Rodham Clinton, the clear leading contender for the Democratic nomination, should she decide to enter the race.
Romney’s exit comes after several of his former major donors and a veteran staffer defected to support Bush, the brother and son of former Presidents.
Democrats are trying to paint Bush as this campaign’s Romney, who struggled in 2012 against criticism related to his work in private equity and his portrayal by President Barack Obama’s allies as a cold-hearted plutocrat.
Romney opposed the government’s 2008 rescue of U.S. automakers as did Bush. Both worked in finance and backed the Wall Street bailout. Both are advocates of tax cuts that Democrats contend only benefit the wealthy and big business.
“We don’t need to try to show that Jeb is like Romney. He pretty much is Romney,” said Eddie Vale, Vice President of American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal group set up to conduct opposition research on Republicans. “When it comes to any ideas or policies, he’s the same as Romney.”
This past week in his first major policy speech as a potential presidential candidate, Bush emphasized to the Detroit Economic Club an upbeat economic message and touched on overhauling the nation’s immigration system and trying to improve the lives of children underserved by public schools.
Democrats countered by circulating the transcript of a 2012 interview in which Bush cited his opposition to the auto bailout.
In the interview, Bush said the auto rescue was “driven by politics” and he noted the Obama Administration’s role in shuttering car dealerships and providing the United Auto Workers union with an equity stake in Chrysler.
Obama’s team successfully used that bailout as a wedge against Romney in the industry-heavy states of Michigan and Ohio, repeatedly referring to a 2008 Romney op-ed with the headline, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Although Romney did not write the headline and advocated a managed bankruptcy for the industry, it created the impression that he was willing to forgo thousands of U.S. auto jobs.
Bush’s early approach to his potential campaign signals a desire to avoid such pitfalls, as well as Romney’s most notable gaffe — his behind-closed-door dismissal of the “47 percent” of Americans who, he said, don’t pay income taxes.
During a question-and-answer session after the Detroit speech, Bush said losing his first bid for Florida Governor in 1994 taught him that winning campaigns requires building an emotional attachment with voters.
When he won the job four years later, he said, he campaigned in places — from black churches to public schools in poor communities — where few expected a Republican to go for votes.
That, Bush said, allowed him to “to connect on a human level with people, and offer ideas that are important to people, so that when they think of me they think I’m on their side and that I care about them.”
Democrats say that’s a hollow argument and they point to Bush’s record as governor, which included the eventual elimination of the state’s tax on financial assets. Democrats argue that primarily helped the wealthy.
They also are eager to note how Bush, after leaving office, served on an advisory board for Lehman Brothers, a financial firm that collapsed in 2008 during the recession.
They compare Bush’s work in private equity to Romney’s role at Bain Capital, which was criticized during the 2012 campaign for its leveraged buyouts of companies that in some cases led to job losses.