Dan Balz

By Dan Balz, Chief Correspondent
June 20, 2015

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush laid out ambitious agendas in their announcement speeches over the past eight days. If they are as good as their word, the coming months of the presidential campaign could be remembered for something unusual: a summer of substance.

Though of different parties and different philosophies, Clinton and Bush certainly share one thing in common: They are unabashed policy wonks. At Clinton headquarters, policy meetings with the candidate are blocked out in hours, not minutes. Bush, asked the other day to explain how he would achieve one of his big goals, responded, “How much time you got?”

The two candidates obviously have specific vulnerabilities unrelated to questions about their policy agendas. For Clinton it is the questions about honesty, trustworthiness and personal accessibility. For Bush, it is the resistance to his candidacy that comes with his family name and with perceptions that his conservatism is too squishy for some in his party. But both candidates say they are determined to make their campaigns about ideas and the policies to back them up.

Their mutual interest in the details of policy comes from their long experience in the public realm. Clinton has been grappling with domestic policy problems ever since she joined the Children’s Defense Fund as a young lawyer. Bush long has been known as the more policy-oriented brother in the family business of elective politics, a reputation he earned before, during and after his time as governor of Florida.

But if the two are steeped in policy, they have left themselves sizable challenges as presidential candidates. Clinton’s is to flesh out her pledge to make income inequality — the gap between the wealthiest and the rest of society — the central issue of her candidacy. Bush’s is to demonstrate that he has something fresh to back up his goal of returning the U.S. economy to sustainable 4 percent annual growth rates.

The speech Clinton delivered at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on New York’s Roosevelt Island on June 13 offered sweeping rhetoric about the state of an economy that she said should work for all and not just the most privileged.

In tone, it was at least mildly populist. That was evidence of her conclusion that the Democratic Party’s most important constituencies are looking for something closer to the European Social Democrat views of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) than the New Democrat ideas that helped elect her husband, Bill Clinton, to the presidency a quarter-century ago.

As she drilled down, however, the speech became a more familiar Clintonesque approach to domestic and economic policy: a long string of policy programs or ambitions, many of them proposed before. They represent a general continuation of the approach followed by President Obama rather than any dramatic break with mainstream, conventional orthodoxy of her party.

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