Fall of the house of Bush: how Jeb fell victim to hype, hysteria … and himself
This article titled “Fall of the house of Bush: how Jeb fell victim to hype, hysteria … and himself” was written by Sabrina Siddiqui and Adam Gabbatt in Columbia, South Carolina, for theguardian.com on Sunday 21st February 2016 21.19 UTC
The cracks in Jeb Bush’s candidacy for president surfaced before he formally entered the race.
It was meant to be like any other primetime appearance on Fox News: an opportunity for a son and brother of former presidents to tout his conservative credentials and record as a two-term governor of Florida. But on an evening in May, a month before he launched his campaign, Bush was confronted with the issue that defined his brother’s time in the White House.
“Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion [of Iraq]?” host Megyn Kelly asked.
Bush stumbled, repeatedly, over a question for which he had had years to prepare. It would take four days for him to provide a definitive response: that, given the advantage of hindsight, he would not have invaded Iraq.
Nine months later, Bush suspended his presidential campaign in the state he had hoped would resurrect his fortunes. On Saturday, voters in South Carolina instead overwhelmingly chose Donald Trump, the businessman who a week before had blamed George W Bush for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and accused the former president of lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
There, in microcosm, lay the problem that plagued Bush from the off: a surname that earned a record $100m war chest before he had even declared his candidacy, and yet became one of his many disqualifications in the eyes of a primary electorate shaped less by conventional wisdom than anti-establishment fervor.
Bush appeared somewhat incredulous.
“The frontrunning candidate for the Republican nomination believes that the Republican president didn’t strive to keep us safe?” he told 200 or so voters in Rock Hill on Thursday, throwing up his arms in frustration. “I don’t get it.”
It was this tone that characterized the final days of the Bush campaign, as he toured South Carolina with a palpable acceptance that the writing was on the wall.
There had been a glimmer of hope, when George W Bush returned to the trail. The former president’s popularity in the state just might, it was thought, revive his brother’s flailing campaign. It was soon apparent, though, that the reappearance of Dubya had made little difference.
By midweek, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley delivered what one Bush aide described as “a gut punch”. She had chosen to endorse Senator Marco Rubio, Bush’s onetime ally turned rival, rewriting the narrative days before a primary critical to the direction of the two Floridian campaigns.
It seemed to have been entirely forgotten that in the New Hampshire primary, one week before, Bush placed ahead of Rubio after the senator’s devastating debate performance. Although the Bush campaign sought to downplay the impact of Haley’s endorsement, Bush himself had referred to it only the day before as “the most powerful, meaningful one in the state”.
Shortly after the news broke, on a sunny, picturesque afternoon, Bush took to a stage at an outdoor country club. The proceedings were downright funereal, as the former governor lamented the storyline playing out among the media and political pundits.
“It’s all been decided, apparently,” an agitated Bush said. “We don’t have to go vote. I should stop campaigning, maybe. That’s not how democracy works, right?”
The moment encapsulated the trials and tribulations of a candidate who entered the race with an aura of inevitability.
‘Kill him in his crib’
It began, in mid-December 2014, with a statement posted to Facebook: “I have decided to actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States.”
The political press went into a frenzy, projecting another Bush-Clinton election.
The announcement told donors to hold off on commitments and warned potential opponents to reconsider their intentions. Mitt Romney, reportedly mulling a third run for president, was among those who subsequently held back.
In the following months, under the nation’s increasingly loose campaign finance laws, Bush amassed a record fundraising haul. His team worked behind the scenes to build an extensive list of endorsements, to be used when he officially declared his candidacy.
Aides were also confident that Rubio would not dare challenge the man once viewed as his mentor. When the senator pressed ahead, launching his own campaign in April, there was resentment but also dismissiveness.
After nearly eight years of Barack Obama, voters – much less Republicans – couldn’t possibly be drawn to another first-term senator. That was the thinking in Bush world.
At the center of Bush’s campaign, derived from a tried and tested playbook that prioritized experience, would be a record of his accomplishments as governor of Florida. But as Bush and his campaign workers would soon discover, 2016 would be the election year when the traditional rules did not apply.
Days after Bush announced his candidacy, Donald Trump took the plunge. Moments after the flashy real estate mogul rode an escalator down to his launch, he set the tone that would draw Republicans into a primary not simply over the party’s next nominee but its very identity.
Many Mexican immigrants, Trump said, were “rapists” and “killers”.
“And some, I assume, are good people,” he added.
The contrast to Bush, who a year earlier had called illegal immigration “an act of love”, could not have been clearer.
At first, Bush and his team ignored Trump – assuming, as did most, that he was simply a sideshow. But as the summer dragged on, Bush was baited into what would become a death match.
Faced with constant questions by reporters over Trump’s outlandish statements, Bush struggled – at one point using the controversial term “anchor babies” while discussing immigration, prompting blowback from groups representing Latinos and Asians.
Standing beside Trump on the presidential debate stage, Bush floundered further. Trump was like the schoolyard bully whose taunts extended far beyond the playground. He said Bush was “low-energy”, a bruising description from which Bush never truly recovered.
Beneath the seemingly childish jabs was a troubling reality: Bush, through the dynastic nature of his candidacy, was the perfect foil for Trump the political outsider.
And so, sensing a war with Trump beyond its control, the Bush campaign chose to set its sights on a less threatening obstacle. Rubio had begun to rise as a potential establishment candidate. He was still polling behind Bush, but the aim in the Bush campaign, as some allies put it, was to “kill him in his crib”.
And so, at a retreat last fall intended to reassure anxious donors, Bush aides laid out a plan to expose Rubio as a “Republican Obama”, with a thin resumé and a shady financial history.
Bush telegraphed the coming attacks in a series of interviews, as his campaign zeroed in on Rubio’s spotty attendance record in the Senate. The approach would culminate in the October debate in Boulder, Colorado, in which Bush saw an early opportunity and pounced.
“What is this, a French workweek?” he smirked, after berating Rubio “as a constituent” of Florida for failing to show up to his day job.
“Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you,” he responded. Bush stood aside, managing only a grimace in return.
In the following weeks, his poll numbers plummeted to new lows as Rubio scored the backing of a number of coveted mega-donors.
Doug Heye, an unaffiliated Republican strategist and commentator, said the Bush campaign’s focus on Rubio had been “glaring” – and misguided.
“Clearly, there was a thought that theirs were roughly the same voters, which I don’t think is wrong,” Heye said.
“But a lot of the attacks seemed to spring from Marco’s original sin to the Bush campaign of having the temerity to run when Jeb was already running … Voters don’t care about intrastate feuds, and every attack sprung from that.”
‘Jeb Can Fix It’
Seeking to drag himself back into the race, Bush reclaimed the mantle of the party elder. He unveiled a new slogan, “Jeb can fix it”, that refocused attention on the domestic and foreign challenges confronting America. On the stump, he openly derided Trump as “a chaos candidate” unfit for the presidency.
With the help of a public speaking coach, he returned to the debates as a decidedly fierier presence. In his final encounters with Trump onstage, it looked as though it was he who had gotten into the frontrunner’s head, rather than the other way around.
But it was too little, too late.
Bush’s numbers didn’t move, and the lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy was best reflected in a town hall ahead of the New Hampshire primary when he was forced, after hitting some of his key lines, to ask of his audience: “Please clap.”
Days later, it was Ohio governor John Kasich who emerged in New Hampshire as the so-called establishment alternative with a surprise second-place finish. And while Bush inched ahead of Rubio, it would become evident just a week later that the result was of little consequence.
“Jeb should’ve embraced his age and wisdom a bit more rather than attempting to echo the antics of the circus around him,” said one Republican operative, who requested anonymity to discuss the race freely. “Kasich ended up drawing in sober and serious voters in New Hampshire when Jeb could have cornered the market early.”
There was also the practical matter of an electorate fundamentally transformed – the voters contesting the 2016 Republican primary no longer make up the Party of Bush.
Rory Cooper, a Republican operative who worked as an aide to former House majority leader Eric Cantor, said there was arguably little Bush could have done differently about his family history.
“He didn’t run from it, and in fact he appropriately expressed pride in it, but he still attempted to establish his independent bonafides,” Cooper said. “I’m not entirely sure there is much the campaign could be doing one way or the other that wasn’t baked in the day he announced.”
On the final day of his campaign, Bush met voters in Daniel Island, South Carolina. Away from the television cameras, the once-staid and awkward former governor seemed relatively carefree. Casually dressed, in indigo jeans, a pale blue Oxford shirt and polished black cowboy boots, he mingled freely with the crowd.
Dozens had lined up to have their picture taken with the presidential candidate. In-between photo-ops, the Guardian asked how he thought he was going to do in South Carolina.
“I think we’re going to do very well,” Bush said, before offering a line that has more weight in hindsight: “In this precinct, at least.”
Outside in the sunshine, with Senator Lindsay Graham at his side, Bush held a brief huddle with reporters. The Guardian asked if he would consider being Donald Trump’s vice-president.
“No,” he said, to laughter. “And let’s be clear, I don’t think he would ask me either.”
Graham, once a long-shot candidate himself, seemed optimistic but was well aware of the flaws in Bush’s campaign.
“He’s getting better,” Graham said, when the Guardian asked what he thought of Bush’s public persona. “He’s been out for 10 years. It’s like playing a sport – it takes a while to get back into it.
“He’s embraced his family, he’s comfortable in his own skin, and it think that begins to show. And I think in the last three weeks he’s really become a much better candidate.”
But that evening, at the Bush party in the Hilton Columbia Center, the reality had set in. After finishing sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire and looking at a distant fourth in South Carolina, the lack of a path was set in stone. Bush, put simply, was no one’s second choice – a critical requirement to successfully challenge Trump in the future.
As he announced he was suspending his campaign, the crowd gasped.
A chant broke out: “Jeb, Jeb, Jeb.”
Standing before his supporters, holding back tears, Bush paid tribute to his family. Members of the crowd consoled each other, trying to make sense of what had gone wrong. It was an odd year, they concluded.
By 9.30pm, almost everyone had left. He had given his last speech at a wooden lectern. One of his placards was taped to the front.
“Trusted leadership for a stronger America,” it said.
As the stragglers lingered, a member of the Bush campaign came out and ripped the sign off the lectern. It was an unceremonious end to a campaign that never got off the ground, and to the legacy of one of the most dominant families in American politics.
As far as Bush was concerned, the weight had finally been lifted.
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