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GOP 2016 Candidates Are New and Improved. The GOP Isn't.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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It's possible to view Hillary Clinton as a money-grubbing opportunist and shady political operator who has amassed millions of dollars and gobs of power by exploiting the inside tracks that she and her husband spent decades carving through the upper strata of American society.

After all, it's not that much of a reach -- especially for Republicans already inclined to a cynical view of the former secretary of state.

To amplify that negative portrait, and heighten its political resonance, the Republican National Committee sends e-mails with titles such as "Fast Track To Duplicity" and "Secretary Stonewall" -- the latter about a Wall Street Journal story depicting Clinton political aides at the State Department meddling with Freedom of Information Act requests.

"Clinton's Latest Fundraising Hypocrisy" is another RNC missive. In this one, the RNC quotes Clinton saying, "There's something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker." The RNC then juxtaposes that with a jab -- "11 out of 19 Clinton fundraisers have been hosted by financial big wigs."

Get it? Clinton talks as if she cares about workers, but behind closed doors she's raising millions from the super rich.

You can argue about whether this genre of attack -- it has been around a long time -- is successful. But there's no doubt that it would be more salient if, unlike Clinton, seemingly every viable Republican candidate running for president were not committed to cutting the taxes of the "big wigs" who are raising money for her (and them). Worse, several Republicans are revisiting their quadrennial flirtation with various flat taxes, most of which would drive down taxes for chief executive officers while raising them for the typical worker.  

At the Atlantic, David Frum wrote that Jeb Bush will have a hard time drawing useful political contrasts with Clinton because, while the Clintons are unquestionably expert at using power to gain wealth and wealth to gain still more power, in all fairness, the Bushes got there first.

It's true that Bush's family history is a specific drawback in a race against Clinton. But the atrociousness of Republican policies is a general disadvantage, and one far more encumbering to any Republican who wins the nomination, including Bush.

Republican complaints about Clinton's wealth and connections are presumably intended to turn the left wing of the Democratic Party against her. But in November 2016 the Republican candidate for president will almost certainly be a man who will have not only accepted hundreds of millions from "big wigs" -- just as Clinton will have -- but who will also have promised, in an age of burgeoning plutocracy and rising inequality, to engineer a massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich to provide those big wigs with a windfall on their political investment.

Political campaigns run on contrasts; that one doesn't sound like such a winner.

Indeed, the Ivy League cronyism and transactional-relationship-leveraging that characterize the Clinton empire may strike many voters as unseemly. But Clinton's policy platform probably won't. It will not, for example, take money out of middle-class voters' paychecks, undermine their health insurance, ramp up carbon pollution in their air or leave their children with additional trillions in national debt to finance better living for billionaires. Will the Republican nominee be able to say that his policies are similarly benign?

The 2016 Republican candidates are vastly superior to those of 2012, when Mitt Romney was the only good choice in a disturbingly weak field. It's unclear how much the higher quality of candidates will matter, however, because the party is very much the same. Its donors and activists continue to make demands -- more tax cuts! never compromise! -- that no rational, public-spirited candidate for national office should ever honor. It's unclear how even a high-quality politician rises above that.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with lambasting Clinton. Politics shouldn't be easy. But we'll know the Republican Party is on the mend when its candidates spend as much energy showcasing sensible conservative policies as they do attacking Clinton's character. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net