Jeb Bush planned to win the Republican primary with a shock-and-awe strategy. Instead, it's been a shocking fall for the onetime GOP frontrunner.
He started the campaign with the most famous name in Republican politics, a $100 million-plus stake, and clear, if underwhelming, favorite status in early polling. But Bush has fallen fastest and farthest against the backdrop of Donald Trump's rise.
As Vox's Ezra Klein pointed out Monday morning, Trump's success is rooted in his ability to tell grassroots Republican voters exactly what they want to hear, particularly on immigration. Bush prides himself on telling them what he thinks they need to hear, especially when they disagree with him. Rather than winning credit for sticking to his guns, he has alienated large portions of the Republican electorate.
The broader context here is that fundamental assumptions about the strength of Bush's candidacy must be reassessed.
That's true not only because Trump has shown staying power at the top of the polls but because his emergence has exposed and emphasized some of Bush's deepest flaws. Conservatives don't trust him, he isn't unifying the establishment, he's bland on the trail, and, next to Trump, Bush seems like the consummate political insider. As a result, it's getting harder to see how he would build a coalition to win the nomination.
What recent polling tells us about the state of the race
In three CNN/ORC polls conducted since Trump's entry into the race, Bush has dropped from 19 percent to 13 percent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Worse for him, he registered at just 9 percent in a Fox poll of registered Republicans released Sunday.
A few numbers in the latest CNN/ORC poll, released Tuesday, stand out in explaining the overall picture:
- 45 percent of Republicans trust Donald Trump the most on the economy, compared with 8 percent for Bush.
- Trump gets 44 percent on the question who "can best handle illegal immigration," with Bush coming in second at 12 percent.
- By a 32 percent to 16 percent spread over second-place finisher Bush, Republicans choose Trump as the best choice for dealing with ISIS.
- At 7 percent, Bush tied with Marco Rubio at sixth among voters who support the Tea Party, ranking behind Trump (27 percent), Ben Carson (11 percent), Ted Cruz and Scott Walker (10 percent each), and Carly Fiorina (9 percent).
Bush was never going to be the choice of conservatives
Conservatives don't trust the Bush family. George H. W. Bush referred to social conservatives as the "extra chromosome" set and later angered anti-tax Republicans by reneging on his "read my lips: no new taxes" promise. George W. Bush campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," but infuriated small-government conservatives by expanding the government's role in health care and education.
Meet the Press host Chuck Todd put Bush's problem with the political right this way in December 2014, after the release of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll:
"He's got work to do to win over skeptical conservatives who sit there and say, "We went with one Bush, he let us down, we went with a second Bush, he let us down. Why should we believe the third Bush, even though he's been more conservative in his life, why should we believe you'll be a real conservative?"
Todd's view has proven prescient. Bush's unrepentant embrace of Common Core standards for education and his support for a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants remain anathema to much of the GOP base.
Bush has tried to position himself as a conservative — and his record as Florida governor backs that up — but his stances on immigration and education reinforced activists' concerns that he was too moderate.
Even the establishment wing of the GOP isn't in love with Bush
Before the 2000 election, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who was then a rising star in the House, leapt at the chance to become George W. Bush's liaison with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
But when he sat down for an editorial board meeting at Bloomberg News's Upper East Side headquarters late last year, he said he wasn't sure Bush wanted to run and that "Republicans have to reevaluate how we’ve looked at presidential candidates in the past because we’ve got more young candidates than we normally have."
He went on to say that "we’re going to have to figure out how to look at candidates in their 40s and early 50s and evaluate them differently maybe than we have." Bush is 62.
Outside of his home state of Florida, Bush has won the endorsements of fewer than 10 sitting House and Senate members. Many Republicans who like and respect Bush worry that if he wins the nomination the party would give away at least two major lines of argument against Hillary Clinton — that she represents a dynasty and that she represents the past — according to one uncommitted House GOP lawmaker who holds that view.
Bush allies argue that he benefits from Trump's rise because it casts Bush as the clear alternative, and he will start pulling supporters away from lesser candidates whose backers worry that Trump might win the nomination. But Trump-friendly anti-establishment candidates Ted Cruz and Ben Carson are polling as well as the more Bush-like second-tier hopefuls Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. Last week, I posited that a winnowing of the field is more likely to help Trump than Bush.
Regardless of how that all plays out, the fact that Bush's team is pushing silver-lining narratives is evidence, in and of itself, that there's a huge cloud hanging over the campaign.
Bush was boring before Trump showed just how boring he is
Since losing the 1994 Florida gubernatorial election, Bush has made a conscious effort to tone down his rhetoric on controversial issues and to use more inclusive language. The idea is that he wants to attract people to his position, not repel them, with his speeches and public statements.
That makes a lot of sense for a policy wonk who wants to implement an agenda. But as conservative San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders observed earlier this year, it has made him a very dull speaker: "Bush has blunted his sharp edges. Now he’s a butter knife."
It doesn't take a Q-score expert to know that everyone in the Republican primary field looks bland in comparison to Trump. Bush can hope that he will ultimately be helped by the contrast if Republican voters tire of Trump's showmanship.
For now, some Republicans say privately, it just reinforces the idea that Bush would be as boring as John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
The outsider-insider paradigm matters at least as much as the conservative-moderate paradigm
What's more dangerous for Bush than being seen as too moderate is the perception that he's an insider.
The rise of the Tea Party is best explained by populist frustration with big institutions — the federal government, Wall Street banks, and the Republican Party establishment — rather than any particular political orthodoxy. As I've written, the movement is more concerned with knocking down those institutions than with creating a governing agenda, and Trump is well cast in the role of club-bearing outsider.
Bush understands both the value of the outsider mantle and the peril of being cast as an insider. In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran as a conservative outsider against Bush's more moderate and firmly establishment father and won the nomination. In 2000, Bush's brother took a page from Reagan and, despite his family name, also ran as a conservative outsider.
Though he would be the third member of his nuclear family to serve as president if he wins the election, Bush has tried mightily to fight any suggestion that he's a Washington insider.
Trump, who spent his career in real estate, merchandising, and reality TV, doesn't have to work very hard to persuade voters that he's not your typical Washington political animal.
So can Bush recover and win the nomination?
It's entirely plausible that this Republican primary season will end as most analysts predicted at the outset: with Jeb Bush carrying the Republican flag in the general election. After all, Trump's got a quarter of the GOP, not a majority or even a big plurality. And many Republican insiders still see a scenario in which Trump fades as Bush consolidates establishment support.
The basic argument is that Bush has an armory in reserve in terms of campaign cash, organization, and institutional support within the party. It hasn't shown yet in part because he's not yet spending all that money to persuade voters and no one has actually cast a vote. And, they say, the party simply won't nominate Trump.
This primary season is different from all of the others because of the number of credible candidates, the growth of Super PACs, and a variety of other factors, said one Republican lobbyist who backs a non-Bush candidate but thinks Bush still has a solid path back to the top of the pile.
Neither George W. Bush "nor any other 'establishment favorite' or 'perceived front runner' has faced what Jeb faces," the lobbyist said in an email. "Having said that, he has, like his brother, won the money primary. He has, like his brother, locked up a good percentage of the establishment." Bush probably won't be able to consolidate establishment support until he wins a state, the lobbyist said.
If that's true, though, Bush will look weak for a long time.