Jeb is playing defense, but for no good reason. After all, Bush is the true conservative in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and should be entitled to the support of the Republican base. His record as Florida governor demonstrates his bona fides as a fiscal conservative. His treatment of Terri Schiavo, harnessing the power of the state to keep a dying woman alive demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian conservative. His argument for affirmative American actions to support a floundering Iraqi regime demonstrates his fealty to Neoconservative foreign policy principles. Yet day after day, Bush is mocked by a man who has no such bona fides, a man who seems to be making it up as he goes along, a man who has done everything short of mocking his manhood.
This is not the race that Jeb wanted to run. The man who swore that he would only run for president if he could run a campaign infused with joy continues to struggle under Trump's barbs. There is little evidence of joy in Jeb's campaign, his demeanor instead is alternately angry, annoyed and fed up. Jeb pronounced when he declared his candidacy that he was willing to lose the nomination if that was what was required to remain a viable candidate in the general election. Of course, Donald Trump understood the silliness of that formulation: you cannot win the general if you do not win the nomination first. So Donald Trump is taking Bush at his word and helping him lose the nomination. This week, Jeb's numbers fell solidly into single digits, while Trump numbers continue to rise.
Jeb's claim that he would prefer to lose the nomination than compromise his principles is admirable in some philosophical sense, but the notion that he will not calibrate his campaign to the tenor of the electorate violates a time-tested mantra for Republican electoral success since Richard Nixon: go to the right in the primaries and to the center in the general election. Of course, a central tenet of that strategy is duplicity. You tell the right wing of the party one thing to win the nomination, you tell the nation something else to win the election. It is exactly that duplicity that appears to have led the Republican primary electorate to reject a host of traditional politicians in favor of the two men now leading in the polls--Donald Trump and Ben Carson--neither of whom has held elective office.
Jeb understands that essential duplicity. He understands that time-tested strategy. He just suggested as a condition of his candidacy that he wouldn't play by those rules.
Centrist Republicans and independents who recall Jeb's father with fondness looked at Jeb's prospective candidacy and thought it should be a slam dunk. Just go to the electorate and say, I am my father, not my brother. And say it over and over again. Domestic policy? I am my father, not my brother. More important, foreign policy. I am my father, not my brother.
But the world according to centrist Republicans and independents is irrelevant to the Republican primary process, and as much as George H.W. Bush has found great favor with voters as time has passed, conservatives will always see him as the man who violated his sworn pledge and raised taxes, and whose fidelity to the pro-life cause was always in question. To the primary electorate, particularly the evangelical base of the party, I am my father, not my brother would have to be flipped to I am my brother, not my father. And that was the path that Jeb chose. Forget standing on principle, or even showing reasoned judgment, Jeb went so far as to say that his brother would be his primary advisor on foreign policy.
Centrist Republicans and independent just shook their heads in wonder.
Jeb's struggles to win the affection of the right wing of his party mirror his father's struggles 35 years ago. George Herbert Walker Bush ran for president as a traditional Republican Party candidate in 1980, just as the years of the GOP as the party of sound money and social moderation were coming to an end. Bush entered the race as the favorite of the GOP establishment wing, only to be soundly trounced by Ronald Reagan as the primary season got rolling.
Like Jeb today, Jeb's father ran up against a candidate who skillfully and passionately appealed to the right wing, activist base of the party, an electorate who then, as now, were particularly disdainful of the establishment wing of the GOP. The Ronald Reagan that Bush ran against was more similar to Donald Trump than many care to remember. Today, pundits like to recall Ronald Reagan as the sunny optimist who described America as a shining city on a hill, and as a politician willing to cross the aisle and share a drink and a story with Tip O'Neill after a day's work was done. Those pundits fault Donald Trump for not conveying the positive, uplifting message that Ronald Reagan did.
Yet their's is a revisionist history of the times. Just as Trump is vilifying immigrants and playing to the nativist sentiments of the GOP primary electorate, Reagan's campaign was imbued with barely coded racial rhetoric that was abhorrent to New York and New England Republicans, but was effective in solidifying the support of the historically Democrat southern and rural electorate that was first brought into the GOP by Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. In a campaign strategy orchestrated by Lee Atwater to attract supporters of the segregationist and 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, Reagan flew to the Nashoba County Fair in Mississippi to demonstrate that he stood with southern whites against the civil rights movement, and he sprinkled his campaign rhetoric with stories vilifying "Cadillac driving welfare queens" and food stamps abuse by blacks. Reagan also scorned the traditional fiscal prudence of the GOP in favor of supply side economics and a tax cutting fervor that Bush famously labeled as "voodoo economics."
Jeb's father's final capitulation to the new realities of the GOP did not come in his acceptance of Reagan's offer of the vice presidency, but rather in Bush's selection of Reagan political operative Lee Atwater to run his successful 1988 president campaign--a campaign characterized by his no-tax pledge, and the racial fear mongering manifest in the Willie Horton campaign ad.
Jeb's father and brother won the White House by embracing the advice of political strategists and long-time running buddies Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. There was no nonsense about running campaigns that were joyful or subordinating politics to principles. George H. W. Bush learned to eat pork rinds when Lee told him to, to walk away from his pro-choice and other sentiments of his traditionalist GOP heritage, and to sign off on racially charged wedge campaign tactics. President Bush 41 and President Bush 43 did not run on their own terms, but embraced the strategies that their advisors laid out for them.
Jeb prefers to point to Trump as the cause of his campaign woes, and like his father before him, Jeb seems to be discounting the appeal and effectiveness of an opponent he personally and politically disdains. Yet the obsession with Trump may be masking Jeb's larger problem -- which he should have learned from watching his father's defeat in 1980 and victory in 1988 -- which is that his own conviction that he is the candidate truest to conservative principles will not suffice as a campaign strategy. Donald Trump may not be Ronald Reagan, but the Ronald Reagan that whipped Jeb's father was not the saint of people's imagination either. Jeb might have the better resume, he might be a man of compassion, but neither experience nor compassion are the currencies of the moment.