It may have been the saddest moment in the political career of Jeb Bush – a moment when even he must have known that his campaign would soon end.
Everything was wrong with his campaign. He was the wrong candidate at the wrong time. He stubbornly stuck to talking points that had little resonance with voters.
Often, Bush sounded like an aging former high school quarterback talking about how he led his team to the state championship 20 years ago. His constant harping about his years as Florida governor (1999 to 2007) overshadowed the many policy papers he placed on his website outlining his vision for handling a wide variety of national issues.
His campaign never seemed to hit the right rhythm. Bush started with a “Right to Rise” theme that would quickly become the name of his super PAC. As that theme fizzled, the campaign came up with “Jeb Can Fix It” which was easily ridiculed by rivals who suggested it sound like he was a North Florida handyman.
Toward the end of his campaign the slogan switched again, this time to “Trusted Leadership” with all the resonance of a neighborhood bank. His slogans certainly did not stoke the imagination of “Make America Great Again.”
Bush’s prowess as a candidate was always a myth. Bush lost his first campaign for Florida governor in a close race against a sitting Democrat governor. When he ran again in 1998, the state’s GOP leadership cleared the field for him in the Republican primary. Bush went on to defeat Democratic Lt.Gov. Buddy, who ran a dismal campaign. Bush won reelection in 2002 running against a Tampa-based lawyer who had never run for political office.
What Bush did have was tremendous family connections built over six decades in Washington politics that helped him raise an incredible $150 million – most of which went to Right to Rise. In fact, so much of the money went to R2R that Bush legally could not tell R2R how to spend money. It was a little like George Patton going into Europe during WWII with someone else in charge of his tanks.
As he did in his unsuccessful 1994 campaign, Bush became JEB! The third child of George and Barbara would use the last name to raise money and campaign for him, but he wanted the voters to see him as just Jeb.
As he said in this campaign, Bush remained determined to be his “own man.” It was always a silly notion. With a father and brother as presidents, Bush only appeared disingenuous to suggest his last name didn’t matter. Finally, in the desperate final days of the South Carolina campaign he brought both his mother and older brother to campaign for him.
During most of the last nine months, Bush seem flummoxed by the very idea that the Republican Party his family helped build could possibly consider someone as outside of the Grand Old Party as Donald Trump. Bush wasted many months refusing to take Trump seriously. Right to Rise had a detailed plan for taking out Marco Rubio, but it too seemed to be following Bush into the Trump abyss.
Bush has always considered himself the smartest person in the room. He is thin skinned and takes the smallest slights as personal affront. He is accustomed to surrounding himself with younger acolytes who worship him and rarely confront him. A prince in a royal family, Bush was ill-prepared to deal with a loud bully. Bush thought a mere wave of the hand would be enough to dismiss Trump’s shout that Bush was low energy.
Instead, Bush hoped to convince voters to support him by telling them he was qualified to be commander-in-chief, to “sit at the big desk” because, among other reasons, he helped guide the state through a series of hurricanes and tropical storms. It made Bush sound as if he was running to head FEMA.
Either to his credit or not, Bush stuck with his same campaign team, some of whom had never run a national campaign, despite the campaign’s continuing failures. They refused to budge from a game-plan that was having little impact until it was too late.
Some will blame Trump. That is simply too easy. Rubio faces the same challenge and has managed, despite some setbacks, to stay in the game.
The problem was never Trump.