A disembodied voice from the other end of Jeb Bush’s Apple Watch inadvertently joined the conversation Jan. 12 while the Republican presidential hopeful was meeting with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board. But Jeb had no idea where it was coming from.
“Hello? Hello?” the voice repeated as the candidate glanced around the table for an explanation. When it was finally pointed out to him that the disturbance was emanating from a contraption on his wrist, he realized a man he had called earlier with a campaign pitch was calling him back.
As opinion writers, you’re not supposed to feel sorry for politicians who come seeking your approval: They’re seasoned; they know what they signed up for; they have money and staffs to advise them. But that day I felt sorry for Jeb. His deer-in-the-headlights look over the phone call seemed symbolic of a larger problem with his campaign: He was out of his league, unprepared for this new world in which wrist watches offer conversations and political swagger and self-assuredness trump appeals to reason. A world in which the old rules of decorum no longer apply, and if you show vulnerability, you’ll be eaten alive.
Jeb did that, and Donald Trump pounced. And finally last week, with no wins and only 6 percent support in national polls despite a war chest of $125 million including his super PAC, the party’s once great hope for retaking the White House quit the race.
You could see the seeds of his unraveling that day. For all of Jeb’s administrative experience, studied positions and wonkish talking-points, he was on the defensive. He’d let Trump get under his skin, and it showed. He was earnest but prickly and fragile, though with good reason. As 538 blog reported, by last August Trump had attacked Jeb more on Twitter than all the other candidates combined.
But Jeb failed to take the reins back, to define himself equally assertively. Even as he plaintively tried to assure us he was truly strong, truly energetic and unconcerned with the attacks on him, the amount of time he spent doing that suggested otherwise.
He said: “I’ve been disparaged, beaten up, but I’ve got my big boy pants on so it doesn’t bother me.” Not the sort of imagery that shouts of stature.
He said: “I’ve been liberated from all this, ‘Who’s winning, who’s losing.’ I lose interest in half a sentence.” Nor convincing or reassuring.
He said: “There’s nothing low-energy about me,” then launched into a story about how, at age 21, he got married on a Saturday and that Monday started a job. Not really relevant since it was 42 years ago.
Jeb’s frustration was warranted. “Is my tone angry enough for the current thinking?” he demanded. “I could probably take it up a notch.” But the thing is, you’re not supposed to announce that, just quietly figure out what you need to do and do it.
I first met Jeb in 2001 when, as Florida’s governor, he had come in to meet with writers of the Fort Lauderdale paper where I was a columnist. It was pre-9/11, his brother was president and the Bushes seemed to run the world. Jeb was confident and in control, if a bit impatient with questions. He was popular. Floridians considered him the smarter Bush brother, the one who should be in the White House.
But by this Monday, Jimmy Fallon was joking about Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio scrambling to pick up Jeb’s nonexistent supporters. Seth Meyers joked the campaign logo, “Jeb!” had been replaced with “Job?”
Even if you disagreed with them, Jeb had policy positions, like consolidating agencies, expanding the earned income tax credit, reforming the criminal justice system, and modernizing the approval process for new drugs and devices. Even if you didn’t support him, it was jarring to see him so outgunned by a brash billionaire a centimeter deep. Because despite his frequent and positive use of the word “disrupt,” Jeb played by the (admittedly skewed) rules, while Trump’s proposals are limited to 10-second superlatives, mostly contradicting his previous stances. I’d be surprised if he even knows what the earned income tax credit is.
Jeb’s exit is good for Democrats because, barring a sudden surge by Cruz or Rubio, Trump is on track to be the GOP nominee, and surely easier to beat in a general election. Pundits like to compare Trump’s popularity to that of Bernie Sanders on the left, since both are non-mainstream candidates. But that undermines the power of Sanders’ central message on income inequality. Trump doesn’t have a message other than vague platitudes about making America great “again.” Yet with every inflammatory, uninformed, inconsistent thing he says, his poll numbers soar.
While Bush’s poor performance dispels the notion of dynastic inevitability and anointed party picks, which is good, you can’t say it discredits the pivotal role of money in elections. It’s just that Trump can fund his own campaign. If his ascendancy is any indication, many Americans have swapped serious policy discussions for a cult of personality. That can’t be progress.
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Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at [email protected].