Presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush offered a rare preview of a potential 2016 general election matchup on Friday, taking their competing visions to tackle racial inequality before one of the oldest and largest civil rights organizations in the nation.
Despite the longstanding connection between two of America’s most well-known political families, Clinton did not shy away from confronting her Republican opponent in his home state of Florida.
Speaking before the National Urban League conference in Fort Lauderdale, Clinton used the platform to serve up one of her sharpest criticisms of Bush, who served as Florida governor from 1999 to 2007.
“I don’t think you can credibly say that everyone has a right to rise and then say you are for phasing out Medicare and repealing Obamacare,” Clinton said, in a direct jab at Bush’s “Right to Rise” political action committee. “People can’t rise if they can’t afford healthcare.”
“They can’t rise if the minimum wage is too low to live on,” she continued. “They can’t rise if their governor makes it harder for them to afford a college education. And you cannot seriously talk about the right to rise and support laws that deny the right to vote. So yes, what people say matters, but what they do matters more.”
Clinton has taken shots at Bush on the campaign trail before, but never as extended and plainspoken as her suggestion on Friday that the former Florida governor’s outreach to the same group amounted to mere lip service. Bush did not respond or make any any references to Clinton in his own speech, although his campaign hit back quickly on Twitter.
“Clintonesque move to pass over chance to unite in favor of a false cheap shot. When you have no record of accomplishment to point to,” Bush spokesman Tim Miller wrote.
Clinton and Bush – both early frontrunners while seeking the nomination of their respective parties – both spoke of the racial gap that continues to pervade American society and stifle economic and social opportunity for minorities.
“Race, race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind,” Clinton said. “The opportunity gap that America is facing isn’t just about economic inequality. This is about racial inequality.”
Bush acknowledged the “unjust barriers to opportunity and upward mobility in this country”.
“Some we can see, others are unseen but just as real. So many lives can come to nothing, or come to grief, when we ignore problems, or fail to meet our own responsibilities,” he said.
Bush, the son of one former president and brother of another later, added that Barack Obama was “speaking the truth” when he said that “for too long we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present”.
The appearances of both Clinton and Bush coincide with a renewed debate over race relations and criminal justice in America, an issue that has compounded over the past year amid several killings of unarmed black men at the hands of police that garnered national attention.
Clinton invoked several high-profile cases, including that of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was shot to death in his own neighborhood in 2012 by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, and Sandra Bland, who was found hanged to death in a Texas county jail cell, three days after a routine traffic stop escalated into physical confrontation.
“Together, we’ve mourned Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, and most recently, Sam DuBose. These names are emblazoned on our hearts,” Clinton said. “We’ve seen their faces, we’ve heard their grieving families. We’ve seen a massacre in Charleston, and black churches set on fire – today, in 2015.”
“Young people have taken to the streets, dignified and determined, urging us to affirm the basic fact that black lives matter,” she added, citing the slogan that bears the name of the movement for racial justice.
The “black lives matter” phrase has tripped up a number of presidential candidates, including Clinton herselfjust last month. Bush did not echo the language, and recently said that Martin O’Malley, another Democrat running for president, should not have apologized for declaring that “all lives matter” in the context of discussing black people killed by police.
In his remarks on Friday, Bush waded more subtly into the issue of policing and appealed for the restoration of trust between politicians, police and the communities they serve.
“Trust in our vital institutions is at historic lows. It is up to all of us to work diligently to rebuild that trust,” he said. “That happens one person at a time. One politician at a time. One police officer at a time. One community leader at a time. It begins with respect, dialogue, and the courage to reach out in peace.”
Bush also touted his support for reforming the criminal justice system, focusing in particular on prison and drug sentencing reforms that have gained bipartisan traction of late. The former governor highlighted his record of expanding drug courts and prevention programs, while calling for an America that includes “restorative justice”.
“In this country, we shouldn’t be writing people off, denying them a second chance at a life of meaning,” Bush said. “Many ask only for a chance to start again, to get back in the game and do it right – and as a country, we should say yes whenever we can.”
Clinton has spoken extensively on criminal justice before, making it the focal point of the first major speech of her campaign in April amid riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody. She has called for an end to mass incarceration, body cameras for police and expanding resources for mental health issues and drug addiction.
Clinton’s speech on Friday centered more on economic empowerment and education, and what she said was an obligation to build on the momentum of the national discourse today to overcome systemic racial inequities.
“We need to practice humility, rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences,” she said. “And yes, we need to try, as best we can, to walk in one another’s shoes – to imagine what it would be like to sit our son down and have ‘the talk’, or if people followed us around stores, or locked their car doors when we walked past.”
Both Bush and Clinton also addressed last month’s racially motivated shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Confederate flag controversy that followed.
Bush pointed out that when faced with a similar debate as governor of Florida – over whether the flag should continue to fly over the state capitol grounds – he “said no, and put it in a museum where it belongs”.
He also commended Charleston’s response to the shooting as one that “told the world something good and right about this nation and our people”.
“In the community of that city, we found such grace, such purity of heart, such heroic goodness, such boundless mercy, all gathered up in one story,” Bush said. “I will endeavor to live up to the goodness of Charleston and work with you to better our communities, whether as your neighbor or your president.”
Clinton also praised the “extraordinary grace” exhibited by the families of the Charleston victims “to the man who killed their loved ones”. Obama, she added, “delivered a eulogy that sounded as though it had come straight from angels”, referring to the speech the president delivered after the tragedy honoring slain Rev Clementa Pinckney that ended with a rendition of Amazing Grace.
Other presidential candidates who addressed the conference included Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who are both seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination alongside Clinton. Representation from the crowded Republican presidential field – now at 17 candidates – was far more scarce, with only retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson joining Bush at the conference.
Republicans have struggled to make inroads with minorities in recent elections, and Bush has made it a point to campaign among communities his party has neglected. He has also appeared before Hispanic groups and given Spanish-language interviews as part of his bid to broaden the Republican party’s tent.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suffered historic losses among black and Latino voters in 2012. Bush has said he is intent on reversing course, a vow he reiterated while concluding his remarks before the National Urban League on Friday.
“Your support in that effort is something I will work every day to earn,” he said. “I welcome your friendship, and I ask for your vote.”