An Elegy for the Jeb Bush Campaign

Betrayed by all of his apparent strengths, the Republican said he would not sell out his principles to win the election and then proved it.

Rainier Ehrhardt / Reuters

Almost all presidential campaigns end in failure. But few complete an arc as dramatic as Jeb Bush’s bid: Once considered a highly unlikely candidate, Bush surged almost immediately upon his entry into the pole position, then almost as quickly fell out contention and became a punch line.

Bush announced on Saturday night that he would leave the race, after a disappointing finish in South Carolina on Saturday. “The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision,” he said. “So tonight I am suspending my campaign.”

It followed an excruciating week of campaigning—a week in which the Jeb finally brought his brother to campaign as a desperation step, tried contacts for the first time in his life, lashed out at pundits and his rivals, and practically begged voters to believe in him.

It’s almost incredible to remember that when Bush first announced he was considering a run, in December 2014, it was seen as a gamechanger. He was instantly declared the frontrunner. Scores of anguished thinkpieces lamented the corrosive effects of the presumed Bush-Clinton dynastic rematch. Yet Bush could have left the race even before the Iowa caucuses and it might not have altered the course of the race: he finished sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire. All that despite bringing in more money (between his super PAC and campaign) than any other Republican candidate. What happened that Bush, once the brightest scion of a storied political dynasty, and one of the nation’s most acclaimed conservative governors, should fall so far?

Jeb Bush sailed blind into an unexpected storm. In a year when the Republican Party’s strength was supposed to be the bumper crop of governors, it has been senators and outsiders who have thrived, while anything vaguely reminiscent of the establishment has been toxic. In a cycle when the GOP was supposedly going to reach out to Hispanics and liberalize on immigration, the mood has turned sharply in the other direction. In a post-Citizens United environment where huge money was thought to be the be-all and end-all, well-funded and connected candidates have struggled. In short, everything that was supposed to be a boon for Bush turned out to be an albatross.

What happened to the governors? Rick Perry never got in gear. Neither did Bobby Jindal—too wonky. Scott Walker turned out not be a very good campaigner. As the GOP race heads to Nevada, it looks like a three-way contest between two senators, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and one first-time candidate, Donald Trump. Around mid-July 2015, Trump entered the race and quickly eclipsed Bush, who was at the time leading the polls. Bush never recovered, following a steady downward trajectory. On immigration, the duo of Trump and Cruz rejected GOP elders’ insistence that the party shift toward reform, and instead took a harder line than ever. That left Bush, with his mixed family, talk of “acts of love,” and push for a path to citizenship, far outside the discourse. And on money, Bush has become the first high-profile victim of a super PAC. While his Right to Rise pulled in huge sums, the group never managed to effectively complement the campaign with which it could not legally coordinate. Mike Murphy, a longtime Bush aide and head of R2R, became a punching bag for establishment conservatives. Through Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush spent $795 per vote, more than all but Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. By February, he was saying he wanted to reverse the Citizens United decision that had paved the way for super PACs.

The thing that was supposed to be Bush’s Achilles heel was that last name. People still hated George W. Bush too much—either for his wars, or for his economic collapse, or (among Tea Partiers) for his spendthrift ways—and they were sick of the Bush dynasty. As it turned out, the focus on the family missed the broader problem for Jeb. Yes, he was clumsy in his approach to his family legacy—insisting he wasn’t his brother yet taking on many of his advisers, or shifting his view on the war in Iraq over several, painful days as he tried to stay true to family without crippling his campaign. But it wasn’t that Republican voters were angry at the Bush family per se. It was that they were angry at the entire establishment. They were ready to punish anyone on the inside and flock to guys like Donald Trump—even if they found him uncouth, they liked that he said what he felt. Bush, meanwhile, was couth to a fault, openly appalled by Trump’s attitude and behavior. During an early debate, he even demanded Trump apologize; when Trump refused, Jeb meekly backed down, seemingly bewildered.

Making matters worse, Jeb didn’t have the common touch of his older brother. Over and over again, reporters told the story of George, the screw-up brother who somehow became president, and Jeb, the good son who somehow was failing to take advantage of his chance, but once both appeared together it was clear why their fortunes had played out that way. Trump memorably tagged Jeb as “low energy,” and he was unable to shed it, only showing real emotion late in the campaign, when he started to get irritable. In October, before the real panic set in, he lashed out.

“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then I don’t want anything—I don’t want any part of it,” Bush said. “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”

In a gesture that might have seemed endearing if it were not so sad, he took to handing out small plastic turtles at campaign stops, insisting he was the proverbial tortoise to Trump’s hare. By February, Bush seemed mostly pitiable, pleading with an audience: “Please clap.” Last week, after learning that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley had decided to endorse Rubio, he angrily asked whether he should quit campaigning.

Little wonder he was upset. By this week, there were already reports of doom out of the Bush campaign. Erick Erickson reported that the campaign was out of money. Politico said donors were refusing to give more, and staffers were circulating resumes. Almost the whole Bush family had joined Jeb in South Carolina, but it didn’t seem like preparation for a triumphant comeback—one more Bush family win in the Palmetto State—but for the end.

What will Jeb Bush’s legacy in the 2016 race be? For a one-time frontrunner, the answer is precious little. It’s hard to see much policy impact, and given his standing in the polls, hard to see much political impact. In the final months of the campaign, Bush tried to position himself as Trump’s top assailant, attacking him during debates and on the stump—whether because he thought that would benefit him or because he figured he might as well help the party out on his way out.

His major impact, however, may be the damage he did to his former protege Marco Rubio. First, by staying in the race well past the time when he realistically had a chance, Bush clogged up the “establishment lane” Rubio needs to consolidate. Secondly, Right to Rise unloaded on Rubio for weeks, trying to weaken him to Bush’s benefit. It didn’t help Jeb, but it might have hurt Marco. Rubio heads to Nevada, after finishing abreast of Cruz in South Carolina—and that’s the highest he’s finished so far. Maybe Rubio would have faltered anyway, but if the race comes down to Cruz and Trump, expect a great deal of establishment finger-pointing at Bush and Right to Rise for destroying Rubio’s chances.

One thing that can be said for Jeb Bush’s candidacy is that he foretold his own fate at the start.

“I don’t know if I would be a good candidate or a bad one, but I kinda know how a Republican could win, whether it’s me or somebody else, and it has to be much more uplifting, much more positive,” he said at a Wall Street Journal event in December 2014, adding that a GOP nominee must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.”

There were a few cringeworthy moments—like the contacts—but in general, it’s a credo that Bush kept to. While he wasn’t above attacking rivals, he was never comfortable adopting the tactics of a Trump or a Cruz. He tried to stay positive. Whether Bush was capable of winning the general election is now only a matter of speculation, but he was willing to lose the primary to do it.