AIKEN, S.C. -- Woe unto Jeb!
By the time the former Florida governor took the stage Tuesday night at the “Last Word in the South” presidential forum here, it appeared that the once-favored establishment candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination was faltering, thanks in large part to a comically unfocused communications strategy.
“Washington needs to be disrupted,” Bush told the crowd, employing the Silicon Valley buzzword to describe his time in Florida as a “disruptive governor.” It was an odd tack for Bush, since Aiken, a conservative stronghold situated in a mostly rural part of the state, isn’t exactly the type of place you'd expect to be receptive to such language.
One could imagine GOP front-runner Donald Trump getting away with it -- calling himself the greatest presidential disrupter or whatnot -- but coming from Bush, it felt forced and unconvincing, as if he were a 22-year-old pitching a venture capital firm on Tinder for gerbils. Trump could pitch that -- it’d be a great, great place for classy gerbils to meet -- but you could tell, deep down, Jeb knew how ridiculous it sounded.
“Disrupter Jeb,” who’d set aside his glasses for a more youthful, contacts-based look, was just one of numerous Jebs put forward by the candidate that night. There was "Swagger Jeb," trying to mimic Trump’s bluster and self-confidence, boasting of his abilities. There was "Tea Party Jeb," stressing how he’d move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on his first day in office and countermand President Barack Obama’s executive orders. There was "Adult Jeb," highlighting his experience handling natural disasters and battles with teachers unions as Florida’s governor.
And then there was Jeb Bush, a member of today’s most successful political dynasty, highlighting the hawkish foreign policy of his brother, former President George W. Bush and the strong moral fiber of his father, former President George H. W. Bush. “If every child had parents like George and Barbara Bush growing up, we’d be a completely different country,” he told the crowd.
Bush’s performance that night was an extension of his see-what-sticks strategy in the final stretch before Palmetto State Republicans go to the polls on Saturday. On Monday, he appeared with his erstwhile presidential brother in Charleston, aggressively embracing his family connection to a state that helped propel two Bushes to their party’s presidential nomination. On Tuesday, Tea Party Jeb tweeted out a photo of a handgun he'd received, his name engraved on the barrel. The caption simply read, "America.”
Yet despite Bush’s attempts to gain traction, there was ample room in the University of South Carolina Aiken’s arena on Tuesday night. Contrast that with GOP hopeful Ted Cruz’s appearance there several days prior, when the conservative firebrand spoke before a packed house. Adding insult to injury, Trump supporters had festooned the place with lawn signs, outnumbering Bush’s placards, and dispatched a legion of youthful volunteers to hand out stickers -- and Trump wasn’t even appearing that night.
The latest polls show Bush unable to gain any traction: As of Wednesday morning, the HuffPost Pollster survey aggregator had him commanding about 9 percent of the South Carolina vote. A CNN/ORC poll of Nevada voters published Wednesday found him earning a paltry 1 percent of the Silver State vote. It’s one thing to experiment with messaging techniques early in a campaign, but to be grasping for a narrative days before the primary -- arguably Bush's last chance to prove himself a viable candidate -- is a sign of real trouble.
Bush’s communications missteps are at odds with those of his chief opponents, who each seem to have settled on a neat narrative. Trump has continued his Trumpian strategy of being Donald Trump, deftly keeping the media’s attention while playing to the GOP base. In the last few days alone, he has boasted that he would have defeated Obama in 2012 and recently hinted on Michael Savage’s radio show that the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was smothered with his pillow.
Trump's base continues to slurp up this brand of paranoid machismo in heaping spoonfuls. Early Tuesday, supporters thronged him as he left his upstate headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina, barraging him with guttural shows of support: “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” “YEARRRGUHHHH!!!!” and so on. One supporter was blowing the candidate kisses.
Cruz, who is polling second, continued to play up his arch-conserative record and agenda, finding a receptive audience in Aiken and other parts of the state. His campaign even managed to maintain some media attention, locking itself in a heated he said/he said with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign over military policy.
Even Rubio, currently in third, has regained some of the traction he lost after he underperformed in New Hampshire. He earned himself some fawning media attention, including a comeback piece in Politico, after he engaged in lighthearted conversation with reporters, including some small talk over a plate of nachos. A relieved media concluded that Marco is, indeed, a human.
What Bush hasn't been able to accomplish with the help a former president, firearms and a once-deep war chest, one of his chief rivals was able to accomplish with a plate of nachos. That’s not a good sign.
No one, suffice it to say, was blowing Jeb kisses.
America's political dynasties regularly invite royal comparisons, and if the Bushes are our most well-known ruling family, then it's probably not a stretch to say that Jeb is our very own Prince Charles. It's not a perfect analogy -- he has enjoyed a remarkably stable and loving family life; Prince Charles has almost certainly never worn a cell phone belt clip -- but it syncs up well enough. Both men are high up in their dynasty's line of succession; both were granted lesser fiefdoms as other members of their family sat atop the throne; both whiled away their younger years as spoiled underachievers before maturing into something more respectable; and many people wish both would leave the scene for their more attractive and generally more promising progeny.
Jeb is also the truest Bush we've had on the national scene for some time. It's easy to forget just how much more George W. seemed to take after their mother, Barbara, all cocksure and seemingly blithe to the ills of the world. But if George W. seemed to be more Pierce -- Barbara’s side of the family descends from one of history’s worst presidents, Franklin Pierce -- Jeb is all Bush.
For all of his years in Texas and Florida, he hasn't quite shed the stiff, boarding school nature of his Connecticut forebears. Watching him chat up voters is a bit like watching a father quiz his 6-year-old son about his newest video game: avuncular, a bit ill at ease and completely out of his element. Hey, what's that there? Murder Cyclone 6? That's neat. Oh? You are working extra hours to cover your monumental student loan debt? How about that!
Jeb really is George H. W.'s son, the George H. W. Bush who always felt a little stiff and awkward around “real people,” who never shed his affinity for prep school attire, who vomited on Japan’s prime minister. In that context, Jeb starts to make more sense and his Northeastern boarding school whiteness really shines through. It helps explain the Jeb who can’t seem to find his footing in a Republican party that has changed so drastically since his father’s day, the Jeb who semi-apologized to a reporter after playfully throwing a snowball at him in New Hampshire, the Jeb who finished his New Hampshire election night speech by trying to highlight government waste with a story about a veteran’s family member who continued to receive benefits after the veteran's death. He got his point through, but it’s not the best politics to leave voters with the image of taking money from a veteran’s family.
Bush doesn’t have much time to turn his struggling campaign around. Given his sagging poll numbers and inability to generate a comeback narrative, it’s difficult to see how he’ll pull an upset on Saturday. The last word might go to Trump, who gleefully tweeted on Wednesday about the former Florida governor’s predicament.
“Jeb Bush just got contact lenses and got rid of the glasses,” he teased. “He wants to look cool, but it's far too late. 1% in Nevada!”
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