Why did Jeb Bush fail?

Once the Repubican frontrunner, the former governor's campaign ended in crushing defeat. Why?


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Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign came to an ignominious end on Saturday night. After three Republican nomination contests in which he had barely made a showing, Bush took to a stage in South Carolina to tell supporters he was calling it quits. “I’ve had a front-row seat to this office for most of my adult life,” Jeb told them. But the one-time Republican front-runner, whose campaign cost more than $130 million, finally admitted he wouldn’t get the starring role.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way, of course. Bush was once the Republican’s presumptive nominee, his famous last name and prodigious fundraising advantage meant to deter all challengers. When he formally announced his candidacy in June of last year, Bush had a national profile, an extensive network of supporters already in place, and a narrative of effective executive experience as a two-term Governor of Florida. How did it all go so wrong?

It’s easy to point to his gaffes on the campaign trail, or an anti-establishment mood among voters, making Jeb the wrong person for this particular moment in political time. But Jeb’s spectacular demise suggests deeper problems at the core of his candidacy - a lack of passion and purpose, which served to undermine his effort from the outset.

Donald Trump famously labelled Bush “low-energy,” and the barb seemed to capture something important. Even Bush’s campaign logo was painfully conscious of an enthusiasm gap – a much-mocked exclamation mark trying valiantly to convey excitement around “Jeb!”. When a reporter asked in October if he was having any fun on the campaign trail – if he was enjoying the experience of being a candidate – Bush’s words claimed he was, but his expression said otherwise. That the question was asked at all is telling.

For this wasn’t just about having a low-key personality. In the modern era of campaigning, candidates have to convey to the electorate that they really want the presidency and why. Bush often looked like a candidate who didn’t want to be there, and he could never convey in broader terms what he would do as president. However outlandish his policy proposals, Trump promises to “Make America Great Again.” Marco Rubio claims he will usher in a “New American Century.” But Jeb, ever practical, offered the simple assertion that he could “fix it” – whatever “it” was. “Where’s the vision?” asked Democratic operative Donna Brazile plaintively back in November. Bush’s emphasis on his experience and qualifications substituted for a vision, and that didn’t sell to an electorate thirsty for something more.

These questions of passion and purpose were especially important for a member of the Bush dynasty. The spectre of family expectation hovered over him: was his presidential bid more about duty than desire? Was it an effort to redeem the Bush brand? Or was it simply the next step in a political career laid out by his brother and father before him – a goal to which he was inexorably drawn? To overcome perceptions of entitlement, Bush needed to make a stronger case for his candidacy than most. Instead, he sought to downplay the connection, and when that didn’t work, made a last-ditch effort to embrace his family legacy – making appearances with his mother, Barbara, and brother, former President George W. Bush. But the message of experience and public service, laudable as it was, risked reinforcing a perception of entitlement, not shattering it.

“He’s everything we need as a president," Barbara Bush told an audience in New Hampshire, offering a litany of her son’s fine qualities. Jeb himself pushed this line more forcefully in the final weeks of his campaign – he had the experience to be president, the temperament, the work ethic, the drive, and the sense of moral responsibility. Jeb ought to be president, was the message, if only voters would recognize it. It smacked a little too much of an assumed right to the nomination, and voters on both sides of the party aisle this election cycle have already registered their discontent with that.

Ultimately, it calls to mind another dynastic heir who couldn’t quite make the case. In 1979, journalist Roger Mudd famously asked Senator Ted Kennedy why he wanted to be president (Kennedy was preparing to challenge incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination). Kennedy paused, stumbled, appeared perplexed, before launching into a rambling response that convinced no one he had an answer. Americans then, as now, didn’t like the idea that the presidency should be his by rights, even less that Kennedy might think it. This wasn’t an objection to political dynasties per se – there have been plenty of those in American presidential history (the Adamses and the Roosevelts for a start). But it showed that if heredity can sometimes help the scions of these great political families to attain the presidency, the bar for such candidates can also be higher.

Jeb was far more prepared for the “Mudd question” when talk-show host Stephen Colbert asked it back in September. “Because I think we’re on the verge of the greatest time to be alive, but our government isn’t working,” came Bush’s ready reply, adding a quip that “Washington is a complete basket case” for a dose of well-rehearsed flair. It wasn’t the most distinctive rationale for seeking the presidency, but it had, at least, the makings of a positive answer. Unfortunately for Jeb Bush – for all his experience and money – his campaign as a whole was never able to channel its spirit.

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