It’s amazing how quickly a tired cliché of American punditry—“Jeb Bush, the smart brother, really should have been the president”—has given way to a new one: “Remember when people said Jeb Bush was the smart brother who really should have been the president?”
Running one of the worst presidential campaigns in modern history, Bush tried to give his candidacy new life this weekend, and instead summed up everything that’s wrong with it. He told a crowd in South Carolina, “If this is an election about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock just become so dominant that people are literally in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation. I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
I get the overall point he’s making. He harks back to a time when politics was more civil, and the two parties could come together to get things done. And it’s a staple of campaign rhetoric to say: “If you want [insert hellish outcome here], then elect the other guy.”
But poor entitled Jeb can’t help himself; he’s got to make it all about him. “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around being miserable.” That’s a campaign slogan, all right. Elect the rich guy who could be doing “really cool things,” but gave them up for his country!
Donald Trump could be doing “really cool things,” of course, but he thinks the coolest of all, right now, is running for president. He’s enjoying himself, being a gremlin, saying whatever he wants and watching his poll numbers climb (except in Iowa). I really do understand paranoid Republicans who think Trump is a Democratic plant. (Remember, Bill Clinton called to encourage his candidacy!)
It’s not only that Trump would be a weak GOP nominee if he prevails; it’s that he’s been particularly and skillfully devastating to Bush, the former front-runner. It’s more than the charge that Bush is “low energy”—which sounds a little like those commercials for guys with “low-T,” a dog-whistle insult to Bush’s manhood. It’s the way Trump played Bush into a devastating defense of his brother’s national-security record, which will probably doom his campaign for the Republican nomination, but if it doesn’t, will leave him gravely wounded in a general-election campaign.
Trump has stubbornly mocked Bush’s claim that George W. Bush “kept us safe,” which seemed to ignore the fact that his brother was actually president on 9/11/2001, the day the United States suffered the most devastating attack in history. The mogul continued to troll Bush in speeches and on Twitter, expanding his critique to Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq “when there were no weapons of mass destruction? Bad info?”
Trump’s trolling led to this devastating question from CNN’s Jake Tapper last week: “If your brother and his administration bear no responsibility at all,” Tapper asks, “how do you then make the jump that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are responsible for what happened at Benghazi?” Bush’s stammering answer was an embarrassment.
Thus Trump has turned the primary into a referendum on the presidency of George W. Bush, while making the worst possible critique: that Bush, who led us into two disastrous wars, also missed early warning signs of the 9/11 attack. He hardly “kept us safe,” before or after that infamous date.
Bush’s defense of his brother also gives us a little insight into the psychological basis for his candidacy: he’s mostly trying to save his family’s legacy. Sometimes I feel sorry for him: his heart really isn’t in this thing, and it never has been. He said he would only run if he could do it with “joy,” but since he declared he’s been relentlessly joyless, sabotaging his campaign with a series of gaffes and screw-ups, from his early inability to answer predictable questions about Iraq, to his damaging claims about Asian “anchor babies,” overspending on “women’s health issues” and American wages stagnating because “workers need to work longer hours.”
Day in, day out, Bush has looked as though he’s thinking what he shared with us on Saturday: “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around being miserable.” Miserable he is, that’s very clear.
Bush’s campaign was predicated on the belief that there was a clamor for an even-tempered GOP establishment conservative to save the party from its nihilist caucus. But while there may be such a demand among top donors, there isn’t from the party’s base. And donors may be giving up, too: Bush cut campaign salaries and turned some top staffers into volunteers last week amid reports that fundraising is getting tougher, as he remains mired in single digits in every poll.
Over the weekend his campaign, along with his family, held a Houston “summit” to reassure donors that all is well. “The patient is either in intensive care and in need of some good doctors who can save him or being put into hospice and we’re going to see a slow death,” one K-street lobbyist who backs Bush told Politico. Meanwhile Trump mocked him “for meeting today with Mommy and Daddy.”
Bush denies rumors that his candidacy is on life support. “Blah, blah, blah, blah.… October is not when you elect people; it’s February. And then you move into March, and we have a campaign that is designed to win. And I’m going to win.”
Yes, he really said, “Blah, blah, blah, blah,” at a time when voters, as well as donors, want reassurance of his fortitude and competence. He doesn’t seem to want this thing. And that’s good, because it doesn’t look like he’s going to get it.