WASHINGTON, DC — Mitt Romney opposed the government’s rescue of U.S. automakers. So did Jeb 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.
While the first actual votes of the next presidential campaign may be a year away, Democrats already are drawing such comparisons between the former Florida governor and the GOP’s 2012 White House nominee — and they don’t consider them flattering.
Democrats are unwilling to let Bush define himself as a reformer who aims to close the gap between the rich and poor, so they are trying to paint him as this campaign’s Romney. The ex-Massachusetts governor 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.
“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.”
That line of criticism was noticeable this past week after Bush gave his first major policy speech as a potential presidential candidate. His remarks to the Detroit Economic Club emphasized 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, a key issue in Michigan, 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 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.
Lisa Wagner, Romney’s 2012 Midwest fundraising director, said that once voters meet Bush, “they see his head and his heart are connected” and they are “very, very taken” with his “sincerity.”
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. … You’ve got to care for people before you get their vote.
“That experience on a national scale has got to be part of a strategy,” he said.
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.
“Bush may claim a monopoly on the ‘right to rise’ now, but his history is full of elevating only the select few while leaving everyone else behind,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Ian Sams, citing the name of Bush’s campaign-in-waiting.
The tenor of the campaign so far, however, suggests that in Bush and several of the other potential GOP nominees, Democrats will not have a target as easy to strike on economic policy as Romney. Many in the crowded GOP field are focused on the perils of stagnant wages and trying to demonstrate their middle-class bona fides.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, talks about his affinity for shopping at Kohl’s, a Milwaukee-based department store chain. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recently allowed a reporter to interview him while he flew coach on American Airlines, saying, “We go to Target, Wal-Mart, TJ Maxx like other people. We look for bargains. We drive our own cars.”
In fact, Republicans see the potential to flip the argument in their favor.
Paul’s comment was a not-so-subtle jab at Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic White House prospect, who told auto dealers in a 2014 speech that she had not driven a car in several years. GOP operatives, whenever they get the chance, talk about Clinton’s use of private jets and her six-figure speaking fees.
“The Clinton’s finances are the stuff opposition researchers’ dreams are made of,” said Dan Ronayne, a GOP strategist, in an email. The Democrats’ early attacks on Bush, he said, are an effort “to try and muddy the waters.”