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What Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton told us with their responses to Baltimore

Republican US presidential hopeful and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush participates in a discussion with the editor of the National Review, Rich Lowry, April 30.
Republican US presidential hopeful and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush participates in a discussion with the editor of the National Review, Rich Lowry, April 30.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton each took a crack at addressing the most pressing of policy issues in the wake of Freddie Gray's death and the ensuing riots in Baltimore: how to break cycles of poverty and violence in America's cities.

They both looked back to the 1990s and came to some very different conclusions.

Bush, in remarks at the National Review Institute, emphasized reforming the nation's education and welfare systems — ideas he espoused in his campaigns for, and time in, the Florida governor's office. It was a bout of now-more-than-ever-ism firmly rooted in the era of Bill Clinton's presidency.

Clinton, on the other hand, called for an end to "mass incarceration," implicitly rejecting the tough-on-crime policies her husband signed into law and then campaigned on in 1996. The words "welfare reform," which she supported when her husband was president, didn't escape her lips. Instead, she proposed providing body cameras for police forces nationwide.

Their divergent prescriptions are revelatory about the opposite political needs of Bush and Clinton at the moment. He needs white conservatives. She needs black liberals.

What Bush needs

With fellow conservatives angry over Bush's support for Common Core education standards and immigration reform, Bush is using his record as Florida's governor to show that he's conservative enough to carry the party's banner in 2016.

The retro kick presents a little bit of a danger to Bush because fellow Republican hopeful Marco Rubio is painting him — along with Clinton — as yesterday's news.

But it's far better for Bush to talk with Republican voters about a shared appreciation for ideas taken off the GOP shelf than to spend more time debating the policies on which they disagree. Besides, talking about his time as Florida's governor creates a contrast he really wants to hammer: his executive experience against the lack thereof among the three first-term senators — Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz — who are running for the GOP nomination.

And at a time when violence in Baltimore has divided the nation over race again, Bush knows he doesn't need many black voters to win either the Republican nomination or the presidency. His brother won 7 percent of the black vote in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000. In the first caucus and primary states, only 3.3 percent of the population of Iowa is black and only 1.5 percent of New Hampshire residents are black. Even in South Carolina, where black residents account for 28 percent of the population, they accounted for only 1 percent of the 2012 Republican primary electorate.

Welfare reform is a touchy subject in Democratic circles, particularly in minority communities. The vast majority of black and Hispanic lawmakers voted against the welfare and Medicaid reform deal Bill Clinton struck with Republicans in Congress. But it's a political winner for a Republican whose path to victory includes whites and Hispanics and only a smattering of African-American voters. No Republican senators and just two House Republicans voted against the 1996 welfare law.

What Clinton needs

Even without a high-profile challenger in her way — and in part to prevent one from jumping in — Clinton has been moving left. What's remarkable about her shift is that it's occurring even at a time when her approval ratings within the Democratic Party are strongest among self-described liberals. She's shoring up the base now, moving from constituency to constituency.

The 2008 primary was tough on Clinton's relationship with black voters. Once Obama proved himself viable, Clinton lost a set of supporters that she thought she'd be able to keep in whole, or at least in part. Toni Morrison calling Bill Clinton the "first black president" — a phrase she later said was misunderstood — wasn't quite the same thing as Obama winning that title for real.

The concern for Clinton isn't lingering hard feelings. Working for Obama for four years appears to have repaired the relationship. But after black turnout helped propel Obama to victory in 2008 and even more so in 2012, Clinton can ill afford to lose the voters Obama attracted to the polls.

Even before Gray's death and the rioting in Baltimore's streets, Clinton was prepared to discuss criminal justice reform in the speech at Columbia, according to a person familiar with her plans. As she noted, her call for equipping all police departments with body cameras goes beyond what Obama has proposed. To keep black voters energized to help elect her, Clinton will have to show she shares the concerns of the black community. That is, don't expect her to talk a whole lot about another round of welfare reform.

A Clinton aide declined to answer whether Clinton still supports her husband's welfare reform law.

Overlapping pasts

It's reasonable to ask what's meant by welfare reform, particularly in the context of inner-city men. After all, the country's basic welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, primarily assists women and children.

Lawrence Mead, a New York University political science professor who has studied welfare reform extensively, says the government should create a new welfare program designed to encourage poor men to work.

Here's how he put it in testimony before a House subcommittee in 2013:

Even creating jobs for them has little effect. Recent work programs run by the child support and criminal justice systems, however, show greater promise. These programs are aimed at low-income men owing child support or out of prison on parole. They offer the men help to work, but they also enforce employment because these groups are required to work, on pain of going to jail or returning to prison. Enforcement coupled with close supervision by case managers has allowed these programs to raise work levels and reduce recidivism, at least somewhat, compared to earlier programs. With further development, these efforts could provide a basis for "welfare reform for men."

"They are both right in a sense," Mead said of Bush and Clinton in an interview with Vox.

"There's little question that it's counterproductive to have so many young men taken away from their neighborhoods and put in prison," he said of Clinton's proposal. "It is not, however, the most direct answer."

Aside from political barriers, there's also a problem with the welfare-reform-for-men model.

"We don’t have programs that are ready for prime time," Mead said. "They are not that good yet."

The truth is that the Bush and Clinton positions have overlapped over time. Bush has supported prison reform, and Clinton backed her husband's welfare law. Clinton's cautious embrace of charter schools puts her in the same ballpark as Bush, whose passion for school choice led to him starting Florida's first charter school in one of the state's poorest areas.

Their respective solutions might actually complement each other. But for now, it shouldn't be surprising that they're emphasizing opposite ends of the issue. They're courting opposite sides of the racial divide.

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