Bye Bye Bushie

by Neil H. Buchanan

Three weeks ago -- more than a lifetime in the context of presidential politics early in an election year -- I published "The Jeb! Comeback Story, Coming Soon to a News Outlet Near You?" here on Dorf on Law.  (Newsweek liked the post and re-ran it under the much better title: "Jeb’s White House Run Is Over. Hold On, Not So Fast . . . .")  With Bush now having dropped out of the race, it is time both to celebrate -- I did, after all, note in that post that "I truly despise" Bush -- but also to consider why my prediction of Bush's ultimate success was so wrong.

I could, I suppose, try to weasel out of my prediction by pointing to the question mark at the end of the title of my post.  And I even included a disclaimer: "Rather than calling this an affirmative prediction, maybe it is more accurate to say that I will not be in the least bit surprised if Bush makes the comeback that I described above." But that would not be true to my own words, because I did say that I "think[] that the Republicans will end up nominating Jeb Bush this year."  I knew that it was unlikely, based on the evidence at the time, but I really thought that he would be the last man standing.  I am genuinely surprised.  Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless.

How to explain my resoundingly incorrect prediction?  The most obvious explanation is that the publicly available information about Bush's finances appears to have been wrong.  When I argued that "[t]he preferred candidate of the old order is sustained by money, name recognition, money, respect (even unearned respect), money, family connections, and money," I should have emphasized money a bit more.  Before writing my post, I looked at figures reported in The New York Times regarding Bush's funding, noting at the time that he had the third-most money among Republicans "on hand," but also that he had the biggest SuperPAC by far.

As it turns out, he had spent most of his money (arguably quite badly) and was actually in danger of not being able to move on to other states after Saturday's loss in South Carolina, even if he had decided to gut it out.  Given that his best hope was to wait out the other very conservative establishment candidates and be the last not-Trump-or-Cruz standing, his strategy relied on having enough money to keep plodding until the party needed him at the end.  Not having money was not supposed to be a problem, but it was.  If Bush's true financial position were known, it would have been obvious that lingering was not an option.

I prefer, however, to think that Bush failed not only because of the surprising financial shortfall, and not merely because of strategic blunders by his campaign, but simply because he was a horrible candidate.

It is especially annoying that, even before he dropped out, reporters were giving Bush credit for being "too decent" or "too well mannered" or even "too genteel" to win a bare-knuckle brawl.  That was a ridiculous claim, as Maureen Dowd's NYT op-ed on Monday helpfully reminded us.  The Bushes might not deign to get their knuckles bloody, but that is merely because they have always been willing to hire out their dirty work.  It is easy to look genteel while quietly giving stacks of money to goons.

Even so, in the aftermath of his departure, supposedly neutral reporters are now writing what amount to love letters to Jeb!.  The most laughable claim is that he was a bad candidate because he was too cerebral: "He talked with deep passion about space travel, and spoke to kids as if they were grown-ups, offering 8- and 9-year-olds treatises on the nation’s debt."  The problem, of course, is that what Bush says about the national debt is nonsense, even when it was not literally false.

As I pointed out last summer, when Bush looked like the front-runner, "Jeb Bush is Confused" about economic policy in general, especially in terms of what should be Budget 101-level knowledge about Social Security.  That program does not need to be fixed, but Bush (the former governor of the state that relies on Social Security more than any other) would have changed it without even knowing that it is already changing.  And let us not forget that Bush claimed that he could get the economy to grow at a permanent rate of 4% per year, which is beyond implausible.

In some sense, of course, that Bush is actually quite uninformed and fatuous might not have mattered, given that the press was willing to equate being boring with being smart.  I believe, however, that his ignorance did matter, because at some point a guy who is supposed to be "the smart one" needs to live up to his billing.  Bush never said anything that made people think, "Oh, that's why people say he's smart.  Yes, now I see it."  Even people who hate Hillary Clinton have that damn-she-really-is-brilliant realization.  With Jeb, not so much.

One of my research assistants grew up in Florida, and she talks to me often about her childhood years in the public schools that Governor Jeb Bush was busily destroying.  He promised to take those policies to the national level, which would have been a disaster.  Bush talks not about public schools but "government-run monopolies run by unions," and his dearest wish has been to bust teachers' unions and to privatize public education, preferably with a strong religious element.

Let us not forget that this is a man who supported an amendment to eliminate the legal separation of church and state in Florida, so that public school funds could be re-routed to religious schools.  Or that he would allow only Christian refugees from Syria into the United States.  Even on issues that he cares about, in other words, Bush is not driven by intelligent analysis of actual facts but by blind conservative ideology.

Perhaps it should not continue to surprise me that reporters could look at a partisan ideologue like Bush and not see him as a hack.  The voters who rejected Bush in Republican primaries and caucuses were apparently doing so because he was not saying the right kind of crazy things, but it is not as if Bush was taking positions that the Republican base would deem to be too moderate.  The people who were supposed to be Bush's ultimate supporters, which is to say Republican voters who would be impressed by his substance even if they disagreed with him on one issue or another, never had any reason to think that there was ultimately anything there.

One of the post mortems on Bush's campaign has it that he was trying to be a smart, grounded, substantive guy in a year when his party's voters wanted none of that.  He is none of those things.  He is an uninteresting candidate who campaigned badly, and it turned out that there never was any substance on which he could ultimately make his case.  Good riddance.