Jeb Bush's Terrible Timing

(Photo: Las Vegas Sun via AP/Steve Marcus)

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks in Las Vegas on October 21.

It's not easy being Jeb. Or it least it hasn't been easy this year, when the family scion finally made his run for the presidency, set everything in place to glide to the Republican nomination, and now finds himself spiraling downward toward an ignominious end to his campaign.

It's far from over, of course—we're still three months away from the first votes being cast, and as Bush partisans will rush to tell you, eight years ago John McCain's campaign came back from near-death and he won the nomination. But unless something changes radically, the fizzling of Jeb! '16 will be the most remarkable presidential campaign failure since Ed Muskie blundered away the nomination everyone thought was his in 1972.

No one should feel sorry for Jeb, a man who has enjoyed a lifetime of privileges afforded only to those lucky enough to be born into his particular family. But his sorry tale illuminates the state of today's GOP in ways that perhaps we should have foreseen.

But first, a review of the wreckage. Nationally, Bush is polling around 7 percent, only good enough for fourth place. He's doing even worse in Iowa, about that badly in New Hampshire, even worse in South Carolina (which covers the first three contests), and most dishearteningly of all, he's in fourth place in his home state of Florida. At the end of last week, his campaign announced that it would be slashing its budget, including cutting payroll by 40 percent. It's gotten so bad that Donald Trump now says he isn't going to bother making fun of Bush anymore (even if he can't quite keep the promise).

It may seem like a long time ago, but early this year, Bush looked to many observers (including me) like the strongest candidate, facing a field made up of relatively inexperienced politicians and outsiders who had no business running for president. His super PAC planned a "shock and awe" fundraising campaign that would drive other candidates from the race, and it came through, pulling in more than $100 million. He was the grownup in the race who, if history was any guide, would end up on top as the lesser candidates fell away one by one.

But now, Bush is expressing his frustration at how the race has gone and what his party looks like today, as he did at a forum in South Carolina over the weekend:

"If this election is about how we're going to fight to get nothing done, then I don't want to have any part of it. I don't want to be elected president to just sit around and see gridlock become so dominant that people are literally in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation. I got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around and be miserable, listening to people demonize me and feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that."

There's little one could argue with in his statement, but it's not the kind of thing presidential candidates are supposed to say. It sounds an awful lot like "I don't even want this stupid job!"

Yet Bush's frustration is completely understandable. From where he sits, his campaign is floundering while a buffoon like Donald Trump and a radical ignoramus like Ben Carson are pulverizing him in the polls. Even that pipsqueak Marco Rubio is now being talked about as the establishment's eventual choice. Unlike them, Bush has actually run a government. Unlike most of his opponents, he doesn't think it's a great idea to just shut down the government or default on America's debts to express your anger.

But in 2015, that appears to be exactly what the Republican electorate wants: someone who will express the particular flavor of anger now prevailing within the party base. It's true that Bush was going to bear the weight of his brother's failures and questions about whether we ought to have dynastic presidencies. And it's true that he's proven himself to be a remarkably unskilled candidate. But most of all, Jeb had terrible timing.

The conflict between the GOP's tea party base and what it sees as the Republican "establishment" (a group whose membership can shift depending on whom tea partiers are angry at today) has defined this era of American politics, but through much of it, that base's loathing of Barack Obama seemed more important than anything else. So Bush probably assumed, as someone with an extremely conservative record of cutting taxes, limiting abortion rights, and making it harder for black people to vote, that he'd be able to hold his own with voters looking for someone to fight Democrats. What he may not have counted on is the way that the fight against the establishment has consumed the party, to the point where even Obama himself has become almost a bit player in the intra-Republican conflict.

Don't get me wrong—conservatives still despise Obama. But what really infuriates them is the way their representatives in Washington won't stand up to him. And "standing up" means things like trying to shut down the government and default on the debt, or any other kind of self-immolation they can come up with, collateral damage be damned.

As for Jeb's conservative record, in today's environment, having a record has become all but irrelevant. Half the Republican electorate is supporting either Donald Trump or Ben Carson, neither one of whom has ever worked a day in government—and neither seems to know the first thing about how it works, nor do they care. The voters currently supporting them don't care, either. They know that Trump and Carson are unsullied by contact with that vile "establishment," and therefore they have a purity that only an outsider can bring.

No one's more of an insider than a guy whose grandfather was a senator and whose father and brother were presidents. In most years, what Bush gets from that association—that $100 million for the super PAC and lots of attention from the media, among other things—would have been a nearly unalloyed benefit. But Jeb had the bad luck to run in a year when being a Bush may be utterly disqualifying in the primaries, whatever he might actually have to offer Republican voters.

Last December, Jeb mused that a successful candidate might have to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles." He meant that you'd have to avoid pandering to the whims of Republican primary voters in order to be able to appeal to the entire electorate, and have the courage to risk losing the nomination. What he may not have anticipated is just how hard a time he'd have appealing to that electorate. As he said in December in the very next sentence, "It's not an easy task, to be honest with you." It wouldn't be an easy task for anyone. But for Jeb Bush, it may be downright impossible.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Ed Muskie ran for president in 1968, when in fact he ran in 1972. 

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