Jeb Bush, an early front-runner who couldn’t keep pace with his party or outrun his family history
He launched his campaign in the warmth of a Florida summer, hailed as the candidate who melded a new, multicultural Republican appeal, a family history of winning and the most formidable fundraising machine his party had ever built.
Eight humiliating months later, in the South Carolina winter, defeated once again by Donald Trump, John Ellis Bush gave up, making him the most prominent casualty of an unruly presidential contest and marking a stunning public repudiation of a family that defined GOP success for decades during two turns in the White House.
Jeb Bush’s withdrawal from the race came as Trump handily won South Carolina’s primary, advancing another significant step toward the party’s nomination. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas were battling for second place.
By dropping out, Bush could help the party consolidate against Trump, although even if all his votes in South Carolina had gone to one of the two senators, Trump still would have prevailed.
The heady promise of Bush’s start made his fall that much more dramatic. The campaign’s launch in June opened with a splashy call to action that was presidential in scale and embracing in tone, particularly toward the voters whom GOP leaders had identified as a crucial target after the party’s loss in 2012.
Latin music blared, and speakers — including Bush — addressed the Miami audience in Spanish. His slogan added an exclamation point to suggest enthusiasm: “Jeb!” Bush employed his Mexican-born wife and his bilingual children and imported members of his famous family to craft a compelling image.
“He is the new America. He is the new Republican Party,” said one announcement speaker, state Sen. Don Gaetz.
It was everything a candidate could dream of — except for an almost total lack of appeal to GOP voters.
Bush had sought to resurrect the political fortunes of a family partially sullied by the misadventures of his brother, George W. Bush. But he was hobbled by an inability to deal with both the fallout of his sibling’s presidency and an angry, disaffected GOP electorate that despised the party establishment he personified and rejected its call to reach out to minority voters.
Out of office for more than eight years before he jumped into the presidential race in June, Bush appeared oblivious to the staunchly conservative direction the party had taken in his absence, a change driven by activist reactions to the presidencies of his brother and his father, George H.W. Bush.
He persisted in believing that people would eventually embrace a studious, serious candidate in a race filled with rhetoric-flinging rookie politicians and celebrity outsiders. But he failed to gauge the depth of animosity toward him and his family, and the more genteel Republican Party they championed.
In South Carolina, the last state in which he competed, Bush tried every trick. His mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, implored voters to side with her son. George W. Bush emerged from post-presidential retirement to denigrate his brother’s nemesis, Trump, and ask South Carolinians who had once rescued his candidacy to do the same for Jeb. None of it worked.
In the end, having finished no better than fourth place in any state, the most conservative candidate his family had produced was deemed insufficiently rock-ribbed and far too old-school for a party surging toward a new identity.
“The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision,” said Bush, who occasionally grew emotional as he announced his departure.
He defended an effort that went from front-runner to underdog: “I have stood my ground, refusing to bend to the political winds.”
Bush’s candidacy rested on the same ruthless strategy that had worked for two family members. Within months of signaling his interest in the race early last year, he used the family’s expansive network of fundraisers to collect more than $100 million for the super PAC that helped finance his activities, and more still for his campaign. In the end, the campaign and super PAC spent well over $90 million.
Yet in an early warning sign, his effort to clear the field worked only minimally, helping to persuade 2012 nominee Mitt Romney to forgo a third White House try.
Even with the threat of all that money, Bush could not dissuade others: Trump, the non-politician billionaire who would soak up so much attention and bully Bush; Cruz, the eventual Iowa caucus winner whose rapier speaking style would attract many of the party’s newer voters; Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose surprise second-place finish in New Hampshire would win over the more moderate and blue-collar voters Bush had counted on; and his onetime protege, Rubio, who would cast Bush aside as he called for a generational revolt.
Bigger problems awaited. Some conservatives glowered at Bush’s past support for the federal education standards known as Common Core. Others were enraged when Bush characterized immigrants in the country illegally as people who were acting out of “love” — a quote that Trump and others would mock for months.
Had the electorate been what he anticipated, the electorate of a generation ago, Bush might have surmounted his problems. But those two issues have become pillars of GOP activist fervor, so Bush’s unorthodox views loomed large.
It’s perhaps the biggest irony of Bush’s campaign that while his family gave him many advantages — such as the massive fundraising base — it also set the stage for his failure.
Bush’s father was never trusted by conservatives in the party, who saw him as the moderate underling not up to the stature of their hero, Ronald Reagan. The elder Bush’s broken presidential pledge to not raise taxes led to a serious primary challenge by conservative Pat Buchanan in 1992 that served as a template for the racially tinged, insurgent candidacies this year.
George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” — a moniker that irked other conservatives it subtly maligned. His support for national education reforms and an immigration plan leading to rights of citizenship for those in the country illegally provoked another lurch to the right for party activists, which expanded further during the Obama years.
The sins of the father and brother made many Republicans greet the third Bush with skepticism, despite his conservative tenure in Florida. If there was to be a new Republican Party, as his supporters asserted, it was not in their view going to be one that heralded yet another Bush.
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Bush himself was another problem. He was neither his quietly confident, patrician father nor his back-slapping, perennially underestimated older brother. Jeb Bush was a self-described introvert, a sometimes diffident policy wonk comfortable in his briefing books, who had jumped into an election that was fuming with hostility toward politics as practiced by his family.
He started the campaign insisting that he would “show who I am, tell my story,” one different from the other Bushes. But even before his campaign officially began, he was tied in knots for days as he tried to answer the question of whether, given current knowledge, he would have gone to war in Iraq as his brother did. (The eventual answer: “I would not have invaded Iraq.”)
Trump mercilessly pummeled him over his brother’s actions and what Trump declared to be Jeb Bush’s personal inadequacies.
“I’ve got to get this off my chest: Donald Trump is a jerk,” Bush finally declared in late December during a New Hampshire event, a comment whose prim language only underscored his discomfort with the rancor of the campaign.
Trump’s most common refrain was that Bush was “low energy.” It was meant to get under Bush’s skin, but got to a central truth about him: In a field of aggressors evincing animal rage, he barely registered.
He disappeared for long stretches during the early debates, as louder voices dominated. Campaign slogans — “Right to Rise,” “Jeb Can Fix It” — came and went, each an acknowledgment that the previous theme hadn’t worked. It was only in the final weeks that Bush seemed to find a sense of urgency in debates and in speeches, but by then the race had passed him by.
The closing chapter of the Bush dynasty opened with one of its key attributes — public optimism. Jeb Bush had survived New Hampshire in fourth place and was back in South Carolina, the state that had righted his brother’s campaign in 2000 and propelled his father’s in 1988.
But any momentum he might have had stalled when the well-liked Gov. Nikki Haley spurned Bush family appeals and instead endorsed Rubio. George W. Bush’s popularity in the state proved nontransferable. A rally in Summerville descended into embarrassment as, one after another, supporters rose to give a visibly frustrated candidate campaign advice.
At the upbeat Miami event where his effort began so winningly, Bush had exuded optimism, and maybe even a sense of destiny. He was, he cautioned, presuming nothing.
“Not a one of us deserves the job, by right of resume, party, seniority, family or family narrative,” he said. “It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test. And it’s wide open — exactly as a contest for president should be.”
At the time, he was inoculating himself against any insinuation that he felt he should be handed the presidency. It turned out to be an early and prescient assessment of the emotions at play in campaign 2016, and of the forces that would chase him out of the race.
Decker reported from Las Vegas and Mehta from Columbia.
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