As we discussed during the South Carolina returns last night, Jeb Bush exited the race stage right following another state contest where he failed to climb out of single digits, joining a long list of Republican hopefuls in the ditch alongside Primary Highway. But Bush’s fall is correctly being viewed as a much steeper, dramatic plunge than those who fled the field before him. In the earlier days of the campaign he was assumed (among the professional political class) to be at least one of the most viable contenders, if not the man to beat, if only for his family legacy and the mountains of money raised either directly or by his various Super PACs. In the end, none of that mattered, and were it not for that name and all those dollars he never would have been taken seriously. So what happened?
The New York Times was quick to weigh in with a sorrowful explainer which proclaimed that Bush was simply humbled and outmaneuvered.
No single candidacy this year fell so short of its original expectations. It began with an aura of inevitability that masked deep problems, from Mr. Bush himself, a clunky candidate in a field of gifted performers, to the rightward drift of the Republican Party since Mr. Bush’s time as a consensus conservative in Florida…
Mr. Bush’s campaign had rested on a set of assumptions that, one by one, turned out to be flatly incorrect: that the Republican primaries would turn on a record of accomplishment in government; that Mr. Bush’s cerebral and reserved style would be an asset; and that a country wary of dynasties would evaluate this member of the Bush family on his own merits.
I won’t take issue with too much of that analysis because portions of it are certainly true. The party has clearly moved much further to the right than Jeb anticipated and a record of experience (read: having been part of the government machine forever) was not only less valued, but a detriment this cycle. His name, however, probably had less to do with it than some analysts are claiming.
Over at FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten claims that Bush’s downward spiral began over a year ago and lists a handful of reasons for it. Oddly, Harry lists Trump at number four, which seems an odd ranking. There is little doubt that when The Donald arrived on the scene like a bull in a china shop, he masterfully defined Jeb Bush before Bush himself could be bothered to get around to the task. The mantle of “low energy” hung around his neck like a dead chicken for the entire summer and autumn.
But as much as Trump was the 800 pound gorilla in the GOP room for the past seven months, I don’t believe that Jeb would have wound up being the nominee even if the real estate tycoon had stayed on the sidelines. This was something that’s been cooking for a long time now. Back in March of 2014, as we were gearing up for the mid-terms, I went on Morning Joe and was asked about Jeb Bush’s chances. It was right after a big conference in New Hampshire where much of the talk was about a Scott Walker senate bid, but the conversation was already turning to the 2016 POTUS field. Nobody was talking about Trump at that time, but the vibe surrounding Bush was already negative. People were sneering at his support of Common Core and immigration reform, as well as his general coziness with a Republican establishment which was increasingly unpopular with the conservative base.
If you ask me, the writing was on the wall even then. And even if Trump hadn’t ridden down his golden escalator and jumped into the battle, it seems as if somebody would have emerged to fill that role. One possibility – as crazy as it sounds in the current day – was that Chris Christie might have caught fire. Sure, everyone was mad at him about the post-Sandy Obama meeting and his blue state has some very liberal laws, but if he’d had the time to grow into a more obnoxious, “Sit down and shut up” kind of candidate on the trail, he might have done well for himself when stacked up against more conventional, reserved candidates like Scott Walker. It’s also possible that Ted Cruz might have gotten an even bigger following early on were Trump not in the field. He may have been technically “inside” as a member of the Senate, but his famous filibusters and the enmity he earned from all of his establishment colleagues would have further cemented his outsider status by comparison, despite his calm, logical demeanor on the trail.
In essence, I believe that the fall of Jeb Bush wasn’t because of Donald Trump any more than Trump’s current levels of success are some miracle which only Trump could have achieved. Certainly the Donald is a perfect fit for the space he fills, but the point is that the space was there waiting for him. The conservative base was already fed up before Trump came along and Jeb Bush was never the prescription to scratch that itch. We were waiting for somebody to come along with a blowtorch and Jeb Bush was offering a candle.