Bush and Clinton confront family legacies

Every Position Jeb Bush has had on Iraq in the Last 5 Days
Every Position Jeb Bush has had on Iraq in the Last 5 Days

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    Every Position Jeb Bush has had on Iraq in the Last 5 Days

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Every Position Jeb Bush has had on Iraq in the Last 5 Days 01:50

Washington (CNN)Their handling of politically perilous issues this week couldn't have been more different: Jeb Bush, persistently fielding questions in public, hemmed and hawed for days over Iraq, while Hillary Clinton stayed radio silent while her party waged an internal fight over trade.

In their divergent approaches, though, is evidence to support the same conclusion about the two contenders with famous last names: They are exactly what their skeptics thought they were.
That perception, at least, is the risk for both Bush and Clinton as their presidential aspirations are confronted by some of the toughest pieces of their families' legacies.
For Bush, it's his brother's 2003 invasion of Iraq. The former Florida governor, who is often seen as one of the more accessible potential 2016 contenders, first dodged the question of whether, with a full grasp of the facts now, the war was a mistake. He later dismissed the question as "hypothetical" before finally acknowledging on Thursday that the issue wasn't going away and said that "knowing what we know now, I would not have engaged — I would not have gone into Iraq."
    For Clinton, it's her husband's North American Free Trade Agreement — still despised by unions, environmentalists and other important elements of the Democratic base. And that's just the root of the challenge: as President Barack Obama's secretary of state, Clinton was America's top diplomat as several more trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, were being negotiated.
    The result for both was that the week underscored their 2016 vulnerabilities: Bush, the latest in his family's line rather than his own man; Clinton, the calculating politician whose views shift with the wind.
    On style in recent weeks, Bush and Clinton couldn't have less in common. The two are, more than any other candidates in the 2016 field, comfortable talking about anything and everything. But Bush's exchanges have included questions from reporters at many of his events, while Clinton has — by the most generous count — taken a total of 13 questions since entering the race, and hasn't sat for any interviews.
    Take Chipotle: Clinton was discovered on a closed-circuit security feed in one of the restaurants only after she'd been there. Bush talked with reporters in New Hampshire about the local franchise in Miami, and how he really likes to cook up his own Mexican food at home.
    Still, Bush has insisted that he's not yet actually a candidate — that he's still in an exploratory phase. And neither Bush nor Clinton have detailed the policy underpinnings of their campaigns.
    Bush appeared unprepared this week to answer one of the most obvious questions his candidacy would face: With the benefit of hindsight, was the Iraq war a mistake?
    He was confronted Wednesday in a town hall meeting in Nevada by a voter who didn't care for Bush's insistence that questions such as those are hypothetical and therefore shouldn't be answered.
    The Reno man's point: The entire exercise of running for president is answering one big hypothetical question.
    In Tempe, Arizona on Thursday, Bush had had enough.
    "Knowing what we now know, I would not have engaged — I would not have gone into Iraq," he said.
    Making Bush's Iraq answers even more damaging was that they came on the heels of reports that, in a private meeting with donors, he said his brother is one of his chief foreign policy advisers, particularly on Israel.
    Former George W. Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the Bush family legacy is "something that will follow [Jeb Bush] throughout his campaign" — but that the Iraq war issue, while a "difficult phase," won't cause long-term damage.
    "It was your classic stumble," Fleischer said. "Every candidate will have one or two. The good candidates only have one or two. The candidates who get into trouble have many."
    The Democratic National Committee unsurprisingly took a much harsher view, saying Bush's inability to separate himself from his brother on such an obvious issue was a game-changer.
    "We got a long, hard look at what a Jeb foreign policy would look like, and here's the real shocker: It would look a lot like his brother's," said Arizona Democratic Party chair Alexis Tameron.
    The most pressing issue Clinton faces — free trade — is a bigger problem than Bush's, Fleischer said, because Clinton's unwillingness to stake out a firm position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and related legislation recall her 2008 campaign, in which Clinton appeared most interested in avoiding controversy.
    Today, Obama is pushing Democrats to adopt his position in support of the trade deal, while Clinton hasn't commented on the pact publicly beyond tepid statements since entering the race.
    "This is your classic tale of a politician who isn't strong enough to take a strong stand. That can dog you," Fleischer said.
    "That's why I think an issue like this, which is less sensational, can be more damaging," he said. "Because it's about a governing mindset, and her governing mindset is to find whichever position is most convenient in whatever time she's in."
    For Clinton, her refusal to answer questions has left pressure building, making her every utterance more combustible.
    That much was evident when it was Bill Clinton, during a visit to Africa, who was answering questions about his wife's presidential campaign platform, while the former secretary of state kept a quiet public schedule this week.
    Clinton did privately address trade in a private meeting with donors Thursday in Brooklyn.
    Former Sen. Evan Bayh offered the details afterward, telling a small group of reporters that Clinton "gave the answer you're familiar with: She said 'look I want to see what the proposed agreement is before expressing an opinion on it. We need to reap the benefits and at the same time ... help the people who would be adversely affected.'"
    Democrats who support Clinton doubt that her handling of the press matters much at this stage with the election more than a year and a half away, and most voters not tuned in.
    They offer an alternative view: Clinton's refusal to wade into the fight of the moment shows that she's learned from 2008 and is now much more able to stay focused on the messages most important to her.
    Bayh said Clinton is in fact running a campaign that better mirrors her this time.
    "There's something in some ways about being unsuccessful that can be liberating," the former Indiana governor and senator said. "She didn't have to run. She's focused on the fact that it's really not about her, it's about where the country needs to go. And that is a liberating perspective."