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A Two-Oxymoron Race

06/20/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2016

"Tough liberal'' and "nice conservative'' sound like oxymorons. They defy political stereotypes. But the ideal Democratic candidate is a tough liberal. And the ideal Republican candidate is a nice conservative. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are aiming to meet those standards.

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The stereotype of a liberal is weak and indecisive. George McGovern was "a thousand percent'' behind his running-mate until he dropped him from the ticket. Walter Mondale got pushed around by the special interests. Michael Dukakis rode in a tank. Barack Obama meets with defiance from his own party.

We used to have plenty of tough liberals. Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. John Kennedy stood up to the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis. Defy LBJ, and you'd probably wake up in the morning missing an important body part.

Hillary Clinton aims to revive the tough liberal image. She describes herself as a "fighter,'' just as she did when she first ran for President in 2008. "If you know one thing, when I say I will fight for you, I will,'' she said in Ohio that year.

Clinton mocked Obama, telling voters in Rhode Island, "Now I can stand here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together. Let's get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.''' She added, "Maybe I have just lived a little too long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be.''

She won't mock Obama in 2016. But the contrast will be implicit. A Clinton supporter in Iowa put it this way: "Obama's quiet, a studious person, a wonk, a constitutional lawyer. Hillary is more of an activist. And you need an activist when you have a Congress that puts obstacles in your way. An activist doesn't stop trying.''

Clinton's campaign video is labeled "Fighter.'' It opens with her saying, "What is a fighter? To me, a fighter is someone who won't give up.'' Clinton proved it in 2008 by staying in the race until the very end. She risked being criticized for stubbornness. Instead, she won admiration for fortitude.

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The stereotype of a conservative is mean and nasty. Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney and Ted Cruz are not known for their generosity of spirit. But Ronald Reagan was. Reagan was not a hater. He came across as a nice guy who wouldn't start a war or throw old people out in the snow, despite the harsh things he sometimes said.

George W. Bush ran as a nice guy in 2000. Remember the "compassionate conservative''? Voters found Bush more likable than Al Gore. He turned out to be brash and reckless. His brother Jeb is trying to run as the real compassionate conservative. At his announcement speech, Jeb talked about "a nation filled with charitable hearts.'' He called for "growth that lifts up the middle class -- all the families who haven't gotten a raise in 15 years.''

Bush is no moderate. He opposes same-sex marriage, but he does it using the language of tolerance: "We should not push aside those who believe in traditional marriage.'' Bush argues for "charitable hearts'' as the alternative to big government: "We can shut down government if we all acted on our sense of consciousness about helping others.''

Bush is distrusted by hard-line conservatives because he favors legal status, but not a path to citizenship, for illegal immigrants. Rather than change his position to meet the demands of Republican primary voters, he tries to make a virtue out of necessity, saying, "I'm not going to change who I am.''

Liberals tend to go for inspirational figures like Obama. They worry that Clinton is too hawkish and too close to big business. Bernie Sanders is likely to create a sensation early in the 2016 campaign by doing "better than expected'' in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Iowa contest is a caucus, and caucuses are low-turnout events often dominated by activists. And Sanders is well known in New Hampshire. He comes from Vermont, right next door.

Conservatives tend to go for tough guys, not guys who advertise their "charitable hearts.'' Bush is unlikely to do well in the Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire Republicans sometimes show an anti-establishment streak, as they did in 1996 when Pat Buchanan beat Bob Dole in the New Hampshire Republican primary. Nevertheless, both Bush and Clinton will have the resources to come roaring back on Super Tuesday, March 1, when twelve contests are scheduled.

A Clinton vs. Bush election sounds boring. But a tough liberal versus a nice conservative? That could be interesting: a race between two oxymorons.