Maybe birth-order matters. Imagine a family with a successful older brother – self-assured and open and friendly, and maybe not too bright, and maybe a bit of a troublemaker always getting in scrapes, but always able to get out of that trouble – and a younger brother – smarter but reserved and who wants to be his own man. The issue is differentiation, not competition – you’re not him. That’s what you tell the high school teacher who taught your older brother, and that’s what you set out to prove. Love him and admire him, but where he is glib you’ll be thoughtful. Where he is charming you’ll be incisive. Where he glides over details, not even seeing that they’re there, you’ll be bookish. He slaps backs and has a wide circle of crude friends? You’ll have a small circle of intense quiet friends, all of them smart as a whip, who know the historic and culture context of everything that is going on around them – you know, people who are never surprised by what seem like odd turns of events, because those turns aren’t that odd, really. He’ll make money, you’ll get degrees.
That’s how it should work. You’ll be happy and he’ll be happy, and you’ll get along famously. And the last thing you want to do is go into the business he’s in, even if it’s the family business. You’ll always be not quite as good at that. You may do well, but your heart won’t be in it, and you’ll always be the little brother. That’s depressing. You’ll never know what you could have been, even if you please the family.
Someone should have explained all this to Jeb Bush, but these are things you find out on your own, painfully – and he may be finding that out now. After the second Republican debate he’s close to being no longer a factor at all. Karen Tumulty and the Washington Post staff explain where things stand now:
The fight for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination appears to be moving into a new, more fluid phase. No longer is the question merely whether or how Donald Trump can be stopped.
The recent rise in the polls of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – Trump’s low-key stylistic opposite – has shown that the celebrity billionaire may not be the only one who can tap the appetite of many in the party’s angry base for an outsider.
And after Wednesday’s chaotic and freewheeling debate, there also is a new dynamic on the establishment side of the race.
That’s where Job is in trouble:
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s once-formidable campaign appears to be nearing a state of collapse, made worse by his flailing on the stage in Colorado. That has provided an opening to his onetime ally, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is getting a new look from the party establishment – an ironic situation, given Rubio’s roots as an insurgent tea party favorite in 2010.
“Marco Rubio now has probably the best shot to emerge as the mainstream alternative to Trump and Carson,” said Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary for President George W. Bush.
That’s his older brother’s press secretary. He’s family. The kid screwed up, but the Post’s Chris Cillizza isn’t surprised:
He just isn’t all that good at this. And he knows it.
There’s no other conclusion that you could draw after watching Jeb Bush flail in Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate. Bush looked overmatched and lost – an image made all the worse by the fact that he was positioned on the stage in Boulder, Colo., next to Marco Rubio, his one-time political mentee but now quite clearly his superior in the race.
Bush’s attempt to attack Rubio was a metaphor not only for his debate performance but for his campaign. Knowing he needed to land a clean punch on Rubio, Bush piggybacked off a question from the moderators about Rubio’s sparse attendance record in the Senate and tried to attack. But Bush doesn’t really like attacking. And he backed into it from the start. “Could I bring something up here?” he asked, before somewhat awkwardly and, if I’m being honest, nervously, said this of Rubio: “I expected that he would do constituent service – which means that he shows up to work.” Then Bush, in an obviously prepared line, joked that Rubio was following a “French work week.”
That was lame, a half-hearted insult from someone whose heart isn’t really into all this, so no one was surprised by this:
Rubio, ready for the hit, calmly dispatched a series of facts – including that John McCain missed lots and lots of votes in 2008 and Bush still backed him – before delivering this howitzer: “The only reason you are doing it now is because we are running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
The crowd cheered. Bush folded his hands and tried to respond. It didn’t work.
Cillizza sees why:
Dating all the way back to more than a year ago when it became clear that Bush was considering running for president, the question that I – and lots of other people – had was whether he really had the heart for it. Bush, even once it became clear that he was running, made clear that he had little love for the spectacle of the modern political campaigns and that he would do everything he could to avoid engaging in it. Bush knew then that he would never be the most charismatic candidate and wouldn’t win the “beauty show” side of the race but believed that his policy smarts and the size and depth of his establishment support would win out.
Once the campaign began in earnest, however, it became clear that Bush was more than just rusty from having not run a campaign in more than a decade. He was simply underwhelming at every turn. In each of the first two debates, while far less experienced pols such as Rubio, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz outshone Bush, his allies sifted through the scraps of the debate in search of signs of life. He said his brother had kept the country safe! He was the grownup on stage! They insisted that Bush just needed to keep improving in each debate. He would never be the performer that Rubio and Cruz are but he didn’t have to be. He was Jeb, after all.
But he was only the uneasy younger brother in the family business:
There is simply no way to spin what happened. Bush tried to do what his advisers told him he needed to. It didn’t work. In fact, it backfired badly. He spent the rest of the debate in the shadow of that failure.
He should have been elsewhere:
The question for Bush now is whether he really wants this – and, if so, how badly. His comments from over the weekend in South Carolina seem to reveal where his mind is. “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and feeling compelled to demonize them,” Bush said. “That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
But that is the family business, and his older brother’s former speechwriter, David Frum, is quite disappointed:
His confrontation with Marco Rubio did not have to end badly for him. When Marco Rubio brushed off criticism of Rubio’s absenteeism from the Senate by invoking John McCain, Bush could have hit back hard. “Seriously Marco? You’re comparing yourself to John McCain? McCain is an American hero, he’s chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he created the 9/11 commission, he’s written more laws than you’ve read. The problem is not just that you’re away a lot … the problem is that you don’t do anything even when you’re there. Frankly, you’ve never done anything.” Then – sticking the knife in – “Why Marco, you even failed to pass the immigration amnesty deal you co-wrote with Chuck Schumer.”
Frum sees what’s going on here:
Bush does not improvise because he dreads confrontation. If somebody writes an attack line for him, he can deliver it -unenthusiastically, emphasis in the wrong places, undramatically – but still: It’s delivered. But that’s it. When it fails, as it always does, he cannot, on his own two feet, find an effective way forward or a dignified way back.
Frum has to explain the family business to him:
Twice, Bush has said that if the campaign is going to be a ridiculous carnival, he doesn’t want to participate. Guess what? Presidential campaigns are always, to a considerable extent, ridiculous carnivals. But that’s not the only thing they are, or have to be, and it’s the quality and character of a presidential candidate to elevate them into something more.
But even more worryingly: Notice how often Jeb Bush – when he meets adversity – reverts to talking about himself and his feelings. Many politicians suffer moments of depression, but the good ones can take a punch and keep smiling until the opportunity arrives to hit back. All politicians are self-involved, but most at least can remember to put the public first when the microphones are switched on. Not Jeb Bush.
The guy just doesn’t get it:
More and more, it seems no coincidence that he succeeded in government so long – and only so long – as a real estate bubble lifted his state’s economy. He was a man for one season, the languid summer, and not our present time of storm and ice.
That’s a bit poetic, but Frum was a speechwriter for the family – speechwriters can’t help themselves. Noah Rothman at Commentary Magazine makes it simple:
Jeb Bush was a good governor; a policy-oriented and capable politician. In another environment, or maybe another era, he might have done better. As it stands, however, Bush has been fighting the last war since he got into this race. The prevailing conditions that yielded Republican presidential nominations to his father and brother no longer apply, but Jeb Bush appears to be the only person to fail to recognize that.
Bush inaugurated this campaign for the White House about as sourly as he could have. The former Florida governor bitterly resented the 2012 primary process that he believed had rendered Mitt Romney unelectable. “I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering,” Bush said at the time, lamenting the insular and parochial nature of that contest. He carried that resentment well into the 2016 race, confirmed by his contention that he intended to “lose the primary to win the general.” The only way in which that would be possible is to do precisely what he did: enter the race early, lock down the party’s donors, foster the impression that his campaign was an undefeatable juggernaut, and hope to scare his most viable competitors out of the contest. Almost all of that went according to plan, but the intimidation factor that Bush had cultivated failed to have the intended effect.
He was forced to do the political stuff – the back slapping and back stabbing and the rough and tumble of pointed words sneered back and forth – and he’s the kid brother, who, like all kid brothers, wanted to be his own man. His heart wasn’t in it. It never was. It wasn’t at this debate:
After receding into the background for the remainder of the debate, Bush was later asked if he the unregulated fantasy sports market needed more oversight. In another display of poor political instincts, Bush said that it did but that the federal government shouldn’t do the regulating – as though there was a third option. In response to this, New Jersey’s Chris Christie generated his wildest applause of the night by asserting that this issue was the least of the country’s worries, rattled off a brief list of the real challenges facing the nation, and attacked the moderators for wasting the public’s time. For Bush, his two most viable establishment-wing competitors in the race had bested him badly.
Now he’s stuck:
Jeb Bush has a choice to make. While he is burning through cash at a staggering rate, his campaign could survive on accumulated inertia for some time. He could drift into the winter of 2016 and hope to manufacture a victory in New Hampshire or South Carolina that positions him well for the South-heavy March primaries and, eventually, Florida. If this were an election cycle with precedent, that would be a perfectly viable strategy. But the hour is late, the donor class is nervous (as evidenced by the amount of money still on the sidelines), and the party’s establishment voters are hopelessly fractured while the conservative populist wing is united and energized. He could make a grand gesture, and shape the future of his party. He could also continue to play the spoiler in this race and hope to reignite the fire under his candidacy with the help of some yet-unknown exogenous event.
That may not happen:
Jeb Bush is a good man who deserved better; a conservative of repute and with a record of accomplishments, contrary to the fevered exhortations of his detractors. But his moment has passed, and his talents can almost certainly be put to better use elsewhere in the organization to which he is devoted.
He’s not his nasty older brother, or his quietly nasty father, or even his grandfather, Prescott Bush, who could no doubt mix it up – and this isn’t armchair psychoanalysis. Watch him on stage. He doesn’t want to be there. Anyone can see that. If only all that donor-money had scared everyone else away… Damn.
And Amy Davidson at the New Yorker covers how unpleasant this debate was:
It’s unclear what anyone’s best-case scenario for this debate would have been, in terms of real engagement with the issues. The shallowness of much of the rhetoric in the campaign can lead to simple questions that, to some ears, sound simplistic, but have to be asked, such as why the math in Carson’s very vague budget proposals doesn’t add up, or why, as another moderator, John Harwood, asked Donald Trump, his talk about forcing Mexico to build a wall “and make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others” (Trump: “That’s right”) didn’t amount to “a comic-book version of a Presidential campaign.” The moderators just didn’t account for the pits of deep ugliness in those shallows and didn’t know how to navigate them. They weren’t prepared for candidates who called them liars, and who, by the end, were simply ignoring both questions and time limits. Carly Fiorina, notably, just started talking when she wanted; at the very end, she had a brief blinking contest with Harwood, who surrendered with a weary “All right, go ahead.” Again, by this point in the campaign, the moderators really should have known better.
This was a mess:
For example, when Becky Quick asked Trump why he’d been critical of Mark Zuckerberg’s call for more H1B visas for tech workers, and Trump denied that he had been, she seemed surprised, saying, “Where did I read this and come up with this that you were?” – as if he would tell her. “I don’t know – you people write the stuff,” Trump said. A minute later, when Quick tried to follow up by noting that Trump had called Marco Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Senator because he was in favor of the H1B,” Trump replied, “I never said that. I never said that.”
“So this was an erroneous article the whole way around?” Quick said. “My apologies – I’m sorry.” It took until after a commercial break for her to discover that the quotes had come from Trump’s own Web site. He didn’t apologize, and it didn’t matter. Cruz had set a model for his colleagues that night: people hate reporters. Just insult them and you’ll be fine, regardless of the question you’ve been asked. It was similar to a moment Newt Gingrich had, during a debate in 2012, when he gained momentum by telling off John King, of CNN. But that was a rejection of questions about Gingrich’s personal life (“despicable” questions, Gingrich said) and not of fact-based queries altogether.
Why would anyone want to participate in this nonsense? That’s what it was:
The issue was Rubio’s frequent absence from the Senate – the occasion for another of the questions Cruz objected to, based on a call in an editorial in Florida’s Sun-Sentinel for Rubio to resign. Rubio had already dealt with the question, inevitably, by attacking the press: “It’s actually evidence of the bias that exists in the American media today,” he said of the editorial. Bush asked if he could jump in, “because I’m a constituent of the senator and I helped him and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work.” Whoever told Bush, who so often in his life has been given well-paid opportunities through family or political connections, that he should put Rubio in his place by calling him an employee who had failed to provide good “service” is not advising him very well. When Rubio asked why Bush didn’t mind that Senator John McCain, whom he’d cited as a model, had missed a lot of votes, Bush underscored the patron play by saying, “He wasn’t my senator.”
“Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said. And maybe it would have, if Bush had any aptitude for this sort of thing.
He doesn’t, but that high school teacher probably confused him with his older brother too, and now, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, there’s the wistfulness:
The candidate, who once talked of the importance of campaigning with “joy in your heart,” now projects an air of bewildered resignation.
“There are two types of politicians,” Bush said during a brief appearance Thursday outside Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich Shop. “There are the talkers, and there are the doers. I wish I could have done a better job talking on the stage. I wish I could talk as well as some of the people on the stage – the big personalities. But I’m a doer.”
That’s fine, but politics is the business of big personalities, not so much what you do, and that’s the family business too – but he’s also his own man, quiet and thoughtful, and even if those deep thoughts are solely conservative and sometimes absurd, he doesn’t bluster. He’s not his brother or his father or his grandfather. Those eight years as Florida’s governor might have been him faking it for the family. Younger brothers should know better. When he finally packs it in everyone will be happier, except that his mother will cry. Those of us who are younger brothers know these things.