Throughout 2015, news coverage of Jeb Bush tended to bracket him as his party’s dynastic counterpart to Hillary Clinton. He was the boring, preordained candidate of his party’s power structure. But the parallel has collapsed. Hillary Clinton has retained a bare but relatively firm command of her party’s nominating contest, while Bush’s campaign consisted of a long, painful demise punctuated by one aborted moment of relief. Perhaps the candidates and their circumstances were not so similar after all.
Both Bush and Clinton represent name-brand presidents of the relatively recent past. And both have squared off against populist insurgents. But there the similarity ends. Bush’s candidacy has received a measure of dignity in its death that was denied it in life. All sides now recall the dearly departed former governor as a sober, dignified voice of reason, the polar opposite of Donald Trump’s bellicosity. Jeb, his supporters have told us, is the one candidate who stood up to Trump. But this encomium mistakes victimhood for courage. Bush did not choose Trump as his antagonist; Trump choose Bush. His vicious, relentless pummeling defined Bush in a way that was horrible to watch. Bush’s strategy throughout was to hope Trump turned his attention to others. “Trump is, frankly, other people’s problem,” confessed Bush’s primary strategist last August. And he continued that strategy for months, attacking everybody but Trump. Whenever Trump momentarily relented his abuse, Bush appeared gratified.
Bernie Sanders is not an abusive jerk. He shouts but does not interrupt, and softens the edges of his personal attacks. (His accusation of corruption against Clinton is implied more than stated overtly.) Unlike Trump, Sanders has a coherent (if not realistic) programmatic alternative. But the main difference is that Sanders is attacking a successful model of governance. His campaign is built upon discontent with President Obama’s achievements, and — to a lesser extent — discontent with Bill Clinton’s. Hillary Clinton is running as the heir to both administrations, a figure who will build upon their success.
This strategy is working because Bill Clinton was a successful president, and Obama has been an extremely successful one. There may be shortcomings in both of their records, but both of them managed to govern intelligently, competently, and in a way that looked after a relatively broad spectrum of interests.
George W. Bush’s presidency did none of these things. His administration was an abject disaster both domestically and abroad. Jeb Bush never figured out how to divest himself from his brother’s failure, and by the end reduced himself to running openly as his heir, bringing Dubya to campaign with him in his South Carolina box canyon stand. The Bush disaster presented Jeb with a double trap he could never escape. His brand was poison for swing voters. And conservatives, who had fallen mostly in line with Dubya during his presidency, were forced to disavow him as a heretic by the end so that their ideology could escape the wreckage.
The direction of Republican politics since 2008 is mostly the continuing momentum of this explosion. One direction of Republican strategy has taken seriously the premise that Bush failed because of his moderation, and tried to steer the party toward a more austere version of the faith. That is the Cruz version. The Trump version is more of an inchoate rebellion against the party’s donor class and its ideas, embracing nationalism and affect. Marco Rubio represents the true continuation of Bushism within the party — massive tax cuts plus neoconservative foreign policy plus soft-pedaled social conservatism, all sold in a compassionate package with lots of high-profile outreach to Democratic constituencies. Rubio allows Republicans to double down on Bushism without saddling themselves with the liability of the Bush name or, by extension, acknowledging that they still believe Bush’s ideas work.
What killed Jeb Bush’s campaign was first the failure of his brother’s administration, and then the emergence of Marco Rubio to present a more attractive face for its continuation. Trump is the face Jeb Bush’s admirers wish to present as his antagonist. But the Bush campaign did not need Trump to kill it.