20 January 2016

It’s the Stupidity, Stupid: Why Jeb Bush is fighting the wrong fight


No politician in the current Republican field has held my sympathy longer than Jeb Bush and not simply because he displays the wide-eyed blinking vulnerability of Bambi trapped beneath a frozen lake.

This may be a hard question for anybody who believes that money buys success in American politics but could it be something as cheap as Jeb’s spectacles that has been the major problem of his campaign so far? He’s already admitted to ignoring seasoned advice in order to retain his glasses. Apparently, he needs them in order to see but he should really have chosen the route of chipped shins and the occasional stubbed toe. Reduced vision would have been a small price to pay for better polling. As it is, the prescription lenses have turned the erstwhile presidential favourite into a character of Margaret Keane’s imagination with that rabbit-in-headlights dilation making him appear constantly bewildered.

It seems astonishing to consider such trivia given that he reportedly has the most well-funded campaign of both Republicans and Democrats. Yet when the money, Super-PACs, and donors aren’t failing, you have to look to the man himself in order to understand why Jeb went from the President-Bush-in-waiting to the Former-Governor Bush still likely to be called Former-Governor come February 2017.

Once you learn to discount his wide-eyed stare you start to look at his raw performances and it doesn’t take much to make you realise that Bush is failing because he’s one of the few proper politicians left in the Republican pack. He criticises current favourites, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, for their ‘lack of seriousness’ because that seriousness is his great strength but, thus far, a very obvious weakness. For want of a better phrase, Bush is ‘old-school’. He runs familiar-but-boring lines of play, hitting the opposition where their arguments are traditionally weakest. He plays the same moderate game based around policy and planning as played just a few years past by both brother and father. Where Bush has failed is in realising that the game is not the same. Seriousness is now a strategic glitch. It leaves him looking confused by his ratings, or, maybe, that’s just an effect of his glasses.

It’s a damning statement about the Republican race that the flaw in Bush’s strategy is that asking Jeb a reasonable question returns a reasonable answer. Speaking to Neil Cavuto on Fox Business after the January GOP debate he sounded excited to report that he was ‘totally confused now about Ted Cruz’s tax plan’. Yet has a sensible discussion about taxation been seen anywhere near recent Republican debates? ‘Sensible’ is what Bush does so well and it’s the same ‘sensible’ by which Marco Rubio gained so much credibility. Yet the febrile nature of the Republican battle means that even the popular centrist from Florida has been pushed further to the right than where his Cuban heels would naturally settle.

Bush, however, didn’t follow, keeping himself as the calm but boring face of moderate Republicanism. It means that he sometimes stumbles over his answers, searching for the less conservative answer that acknowledges that reality rarely fits the more ideological model. It’s habitual with him because he knows that anything he might say could (but now probably won’t) be used as evidence against him at a later court of public opinion. When the debate turns to immigration, he doesn’t countenance bans on Muslims because that would impact allied nations, such as India and the Philippines. That’s the answer many people would reasonably accept from a President charged with managing the relationship between America and two key nations in a region increasingly dominated by Chinese expansionism.

Except, of course, many of the voters around the Republican median want to hear neither ‘serious’ nor ‘sensible’. They seem not to care about the feelings of allies in India and the Philippines.

The Republican base cheer the GOP debate when it’s driven hard by Trump and Cruz. They want scrap-yard politics that have the authentic growl of an American-built V8. They don’t want carefully worded answers but heavy boilerplate rhetoric and somebody willing to hammer on about making America ‘great again’ and then to keep on hammering, no matter how thin it begins to sound. It means that, when Bush tries to counter by attacking Trump, the effect is comical. He’s the city sophisticate standing up for himself, searching his soul for the deepest, most profane insult he can manage, and then calling the bully from the grease-pit a ‘poop mouth’. Jeb just isn’t built for this country. His chassis doesn’t ride well over this terrain.

Just look how far Ted Cruz has travelled to cover that terrain. An Ivy League lawyer who successfully argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, Cruz now plays to Southern stereotypes, drawling thin popularist policies thick with generalisations:

When it comes to ISIS, we will not weaken them, we will not degrade them, we will utterly and completely destroy ISIS.

Cruz is surely bright enough to know how ridiculous this sounds but he’s also intelligent enough to know that this election is a duck hunt and the gun with the widest scatter brings down the most birds. Compare Cruz’s meaningless promise with Bush’s detailed response to Trump’s idea to ban Muslims from entering the United States:

I hope you reconsider this because this policy is a policy that makes it impossible to built the coalition necessary to take out ISIS. The Kurds are our strongest allies. They’re Muslim. You’re not even going to allow them to come to our country? […] And sending that signal makes it impossible for us to be serious about taking our ISIS and restoring democracy in Syria.

Or again:

All Muslims? Seriously? What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world that the United States is a serious player in creating peace and security?

Serious, seriously, serious… It is the great dysfunction of the Republican campaign that ‘seriousness’ polls so poorly. Never has the dog whistle been so shrill in the political mainstream.

The result is Trump leading on his anti-Muslim charge and Bush floundering with his arms still wrapped around an increasingly deadweight notion of America as ‘a noble country’. Somewhere between the two we have Ben Carson’s skiff drifting towards the rocks, piloted by a man with all the personality of a hallway draught. Chris Christie has rarely overcome the impression he’s constantly out of breath. Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, has been unable to convince anybody that her personality wasn’t injection moulded. John Kasich impresses each time he speaks but, somehow, never in a way that doesn’t make you think of the character of Gil Gunderson in The Simpsons. Lastly, Marco Rubio convinces as the true hope for the Republican party but, perhaps, not for 2016. He’ll learn a lot from this campaign, not least the dangers of following Trump’s hound into the rightwing thicket.

Sensibly, perhaps, Bush has remained at the centre. He is hoping there’ll be more votes among moderate Republicans and there’s every reason to believe that there are. This week he was endorsed by Lindsey Graham and more will surely follow as the field narrows. Will there be enough to see him emerge as a serious alternative to Trump or Cruz? Rubio could emerge if he can edge back to the centre but it’s also a matter of whether you believe that Trump is a natural candidate of the right.

Cruz appeals to traditionally conservative Christian voters but will struggle to gain support the further towards the centre he aims. His quip about ‘New York values’ was a dog whistle pitched perfectly to the ears of his supporters but could be discordant to the rest. Trump, however, is a demagogue funding his own personality cult and in those terms he could be difficult to beat.

As for Bush: with his financial backing and the hard work unfinished in many of the more moderate states, it’s not impossible to see him claw his way back into the fight. He recently dropped the exclamation mark after ‘Jeb!’ which proved too trivial a slogan for a campaign emphasising seriousness. He should now make virtues of his flaws. He lacks Trump’s grunting grandiloquence, all amusing quips and rhetorical tics, but he could present himself as the candidate offering sound answers, defined plans, and a boring attention to detail that is profoundly lacking elsewhere in the Republican race. If Rubio can’t do it, Bush could yet define himself as the only serious alternative to the carnival freakshow. Jeb might still have an endgame but only, of course, if he loses those glasses.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.